After taking a healthy summer break, we're back at it with two mega collective groups that seem destined to appear in a review together...
The Polyphonic Spree
New Release: Yes, It's True
Release Date: August 6, 2013
Record Label: Good Records
Sounds Like: The New Pornographers (NMT), The Arcade Fire (NMT) Rah Rah (NMT), Telekinesis (NMT, NMT)
Location: Dallas, Texas
In terms of mass collective indie rock groups – you know, the kind with no fewer than 5 or 6 members, usually including both men and women, who play an assortment of instruments, usually including horns and strings – The Polyphonic Spree is often considered the format's archetype. Formed by former Tripping Daisy frontman Ken DeLaughter after the passing of the group's guitarist Wes Berggen, the sprawling unit – whose current members contribute anything from harp to french horn – was always intended to be an experiment in symphonic pop rock. And while regular readers of this blog would expect this to be the sort of act that would appear routinely in posts, their most recent full-length record – The Fragile Army – was released back in 2007, well before the dawn of this space. Nonetheless, since the release of their debut album – 2002's The Beginning Stages of...The Polyphonic Spree – through last week's long-awaited Yes, It's True, the band has served as the vanguard for large-format groups with sweeping orchestrations, unusual instruments and lots of participants. While the new work's scope may be more constrained than previous efforts – really, a skeleton crew of only 20 are listed as current members – its focus is more deliberate and allows DeLaughter's poppier instincts to emerge at the forefront.
Come for: "You Don't Know Me" (delightfully hyper-hooky; no conspiracy paranoia the title might suggest; more a call to arms against prejudice and divisiveness: "there's always more to you than there are of them")
Stay for: "What Would You Do?" (remember that sludgy, but poppy sound that Telekinesis has perfected? This is very similar)
You'll be surprised by: "You're Golden" (the simplicity of the introductory piano is a pleasant contrast to the bombast elsewhere; like the rattling snare in the chorus and the (faux?) harpsichord highlights in the verses; contains DeLaughter's best take on contemporary social networking: "it's not the car that you drive, it's not your phone with an 'i'; it's not your Facebook likes, it's not your Instagram pride")
Solid efforts: "Popular By Design" (a little synth-heavy, and songs like these are when I'm not so wild about DeLaughter's voice – a little measly at times, but otherwise, its a fine, catchy track); "Carefully Try" (a nice change of pace from the spirited romps of the first three tracks; numerous instances of artful instrumentation, a la Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds; the first few chords of the chorus are reminiscent of The Killers' smash, "Mr. Brightside"); "Heart Talk" (could range in influence anywhere from David Bowie to The Talking Heads to They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT), the latter what with all the comical-sounding saxophone); "Blurry Up the Lines" (a bit of a slow starter, but it rounds out into something much more expansive); "Let Them Be" (intrigued by the rumbling drums and odd water glass percussion, then the harsh bluesly horns; could have otherwise been too moody, but its much more than the sum of its parts); "Raise Your Hand" (the long snare intro belies the synth focus that's the heart of the song;
Meh: "Hold Yourself Up" (has beefy hooks, but is a bit threadbare at other points)
Skip to next track: "Battlefield" (it's appropriately named, because it's a lawn, brooding battle to get through...)
The Family Crest
New Release: The Headwinds (EP)
Release Date: July 30, 2013
Record Label: Tender Loving Empire Records
Sounds Like: Hey Marseilles (NMT), Hey Rosetta! (NMT), Of Monsters & Men (NMT), The Polyphonic Spree, The Arcade Fire (NMT), hints of The Moody Blues and DeVotchKa (NMT)
Location: San Francisco, Calif.
You know The Polyphonic Spree and Broken Social Scene and The Arcade Fire and The New Pornographers, Hey Marseilles and Camera Obscura (NMT) and The Decemberists (NMT, NMT) and Los Campesinos! (NMT). But do you recall the largest, most expansive musical collective of them all?
Yes, it sounds ridiculous in a post reviewing new material from The Polyphonic Spree to find an even bigger band. But here they are in the form of the San Francisco-based company, The Family Crest and their new six-track EP, The Headwinds. While certainly not as established as their counterparts from Dallas, the group – which features six "core" members and an "extended family" list of what seems to be more than a hundred others who can contribute parts remotely – delivers epic-scale, lushly orchestrated compositions that are a little less reliant on synth than Ken DeLaughter's group and perhaps benefits from a bit more folksy foundations. In between their 2012 full-length debut The Village and their forthcoming follow-up – reportedly to be titled Beneath the Brine – The Headwinds EP keeps their growing audience satiated until next year while delivering far more than just odds and ends – its a fully-realized, dynamic and interesting collection of new material. Heck, at more than 23 minutes, its longer than some punk albums and includes two plus-5-minute selections.
Come for: "Love Don't Go" (grandiose first single with a fine balance of pop hooks and nuanced instrumentation, chock full of horns and strings interspersed with frontman and guitarist Liam McCormick's earthy verses)
Stay for: "The River" (the band wisely displays its impressive largess from the outset on this opening track; its signature vocal chorus unit flexes its muscle while McCormick's narrative is highlighted with artful strings and piano in its quieter moments)
You'll be surprised by: "Marry Me" (after a misleadingly ominous intro, it becomes exuberant and infectious in perfectly matches the celebratory nature of McCormick's lyrics; be on the lookout for the same sort of gypsy minstrel flair as exhibited in groups like DeVotchKa and Gogol Bordello)
Solid efforts: "The Headwinds" (very much aligned with the recent efforts from Of Monsters & Men, akin to that group's "Dirty Paws" or "King and Lionheart"; the record's most sturdy number); "Brittle Bones" (dig into your Decemberists collection for "The Sporting Life," you might find the rhythm strikingly similar here; the only part of McCormick's singing that gets stuck in my craw a bit is evident here, a sliver of a lisp where an "h" is added to words that end in "s," like "bones[h]" or "shoes[h]" – its not fatal, but is certainly noticeable)