Given the Polyphonic Spree’s penchant for what is (in the opinion of many) a style-over-substance edict, I often find myself returning to a chicken or the egg type issue when I think about the band: which came first, the concept or the songs?
The Polyphonic SpreeCity: Philadelphia, PA
Venue: Fillmore at the TLA
Four songs into the Polyphonic Spree’s sprightly set at the Filmore, a crowd member hands singer Tim DeLaughter a sailor hat. DeLaughter puts it on, makes a wisecrack about Gilligan’s Island, and gets back to steering his ship -- the 24-piece Polyphonic Spree -- towards a perpetual horizon where the sun never sets. DeLaughter doesn’t need the hat to assert his authority. We all know who captains this over-stocked vessel. Much like Philadelphia’s Theatre of the Living Arts -- which recently got an overhaul (new floor, lick of paint, chandeliers) -- the Polyphonic Spree turned up in new threads. Gone are the flowing robes (until the encore, at least) -- they’ve been replaced by dark fatigues resplendent with red crosses that make the band’s members look like My Chemical Romance’s older, much more cultish cousins. Given the Polyphonic Spree’s penchant for staged theatrics and what is (in my opinion) a style-over-substance edict, I often find myself returning to a chicken-or-the-egg type question when I think about them: which came first, the concept or the songs? Their fans -- a rabid bunch indeed -- would argue that it doesn’t matter. And perhaps it shouldn’t. Whole musical sub-cultures have been built on similar statutes. But, then, I’m a cynic. Since springing up in 2002 from the ashes of DeLaughter’s previous band, Tripping Daisy, the Polyphonic Spree has built a cult following with a mix of orchestral-indie rock that, at times, sounds like David Bowie dallying with Andrew Lloyd Webber. In a constant state of ecstatic flux, the band have released three albums, reduced their numbers from 28 to 24 (not that you would notice), and become as synonymous with car commercials as with their choral conceit. On The Fragile Army, their third and most rocking album to date, the Spree have also attempted to outgrow their happy-clappy image, ditching not only the robes, but also the overt lyrical allusions to the ‘sun’ and ‘happiness.’ Along this line, DeLaughter introduces the current album’s title track as an “ode to Bush,” before singing, somewhat cryptically, “You tighten your back up/ Oooh, you’re so psychic/ We all want to know/ Did you marry the witch you’ve come to know?” It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a far cry from the Disney Kids coda of “follow the day and reach for the sun.” Even though their current album (and style) is darker, this show -- aside from the aforementioned presidential putdown and a theatrical opening featuring the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” projected upon a curtain -- is an apolitical affair full of choral cacophonies and assiduous musical exuberance. At first, it’s overwhelming, though stunningly so. A curtain drops to reveal the group. A seven-piece female choir acts as its centerpiece, perching on a raised platform that separates the band’s two drummers. The rest of the band is dispersed around the stage: two violinists, two guitarists, and a couple of keyboard players are set out symmetrically at either side. It’s the musical equivalent of Noah’s Ark. Soon enough they’re tearing through “Running Away,” the most prototypical Polyphonic Spree tune to be found on The Fragile Army. The world, for once, seems at ease as confetti shoots into the air from all directions. Despite the flagrant Flaming Lips comparisons, the scene is joyous. Yet, for every high (“Hanging Around”) there is a corresponding low. Newer songs seem somehow devoid of air; instruments battle for space instead of breathing independently. Only when certain musicians drop out of the mix do you actually hear slighter-sounding instruments such as flute or cello. Similarly, throughout several early songs, the choir seems somewhat underutilized. On “Light to Follow,” however, they step up, becoming an integral part of the song rather than just pretty backing singers shaking their hair with Clairol-commercial vigor. Interestingly, it’s during the Spree’s older songs -- as opposed to the newer, more complex ones-- that subtle textures shine through, demonstrating the vast expanse of instruments at the group's disposal. “La La / Middle of the Day” from “The Beginning Stages of. . .” is carefully layered with individual parts that actually grow, giving it an organic feel. It’s an experiment in new sound -- the band toying with its lack of limitations. Whilst the Polyphonic Spree’s musical prowess can sometimes be taken to task, their enthusiasm cannot. Two band members end the main set with a stage dive, the fans carrying them to the back of the theatre. And it’s from here they begin the encore. Entering in their trademark robes, they slowly make their way to the stage, greeting fans with hugs and high-fives before covering Nirvana’s “Lithium” and reinterpreting Tripping Daisy’s “Sonic Bloom.” The former sounds like the cast of Annie is reworking the grunge classic, while the latter provides a clear link between DeLaughter’s two musical enterprises. DeLaughter -- his sailor hat now resting on a microphone stand -- brings the band back to port, finishing the two-hour-plus with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for a crowd member. Sure, sometimes the Polyphonic Spree are euphoric and sometimes they’re embarrassing, but not even the cynic inside can stop me from singing along to this one.