A Beatles-like Convergence
By Sascha Freudenheim

11 December 2005

From its opening chords to its extended, trailing, semi-harmonic end, it is hard not to hear the influence of The Beatles in The Polyphonic Spree’s first album, The Beginning Stages Of... The exhilarating symphonic pretensions of Sgt. Pepper; the bursting sound of songs like “Sun King” on Abby Road; the difference between the two groups might be summed up simply as: anti-depressants. Which is to say that The Polyphonic Spree seems to have ingested a lot of them, spreading the supply out across the multitude of band members, to ensure that when they sing lyrics like...

Take some time to get away,
Suicide is a shame,
Soon you’ll find your own way

...with a melancholy overtone, and with horns trailing in the background, what you cannot help but hear is an enthusiasm for life. The tempo appears to pick up – really just the tempo of the percussion in the background – and it clearly gives the flavor of increasing joy and happiness with life.

“Melancholy happiness” is a difficult state to achieve without sounding phony, but somehow The Polyphonic Spree manage to pull it off. The same is true for their song “Light & Day / Reach For The Sun,” a piece of which was used by VW for one of its better young-Yuppie focused advertisements to express exactly that emotional mixture: the melancholy happiness of being out for a drive and not wanting to leave the beautiful night and the comfort of a car full of friends in favor of a (visually-loud, overwhelming) party. Watching the band’s video for “Light & Day” brings it all together: a stage full of white-robed musician-singer-shimmy-shaking celebrants backing up a smiling, nearly-beatific singer and ring-leader named Tim DeLaughter. Sure, go ahead, laugh at his name. But much as listening to The Beatles can be an infectious experience, a series of sounds that pulls in the listener and connects the dots between word and note, so too for The Polyphonic Spree.

All of the above is equally true of the grand harmonies and musical interludes created for the Thumbsucker soundtrack, also largely the work of The Polyphonic Spree, and an engaging-enough soundtrack for the movie viewer that it is worth purchasing for a true listen. Yet the twenty-person band – the horns and tambourines and voices and all of it – can be overwhelming after a while. The brilliance of the (late-)Beatles was in their variety, their shifting moods and the way they used their music and lyrics to bring the listener along for the arch of a seeming-story.[1] No sooner had you heard about “Mean Mr. Mustard” than they were whipping you along to the dynamic “Polythene Pam.” If there is a problem with The Polyphonic Spree, it is that it’s too much of a good thing after a while (ok, you like sunlight – I get it already). For the Thumbsucker soundtrack, which was originally to have been written and performed by Elliott Smith, a decision was made to include three songs that Smith recorded before he took his own life: a cover of the Big Star song “Thirteen,” a cover of Cat Stevens’ “Trouble,” and a Smith original called “Let’s Get Lost.”

Elliott Smith provides some necessary leveling to the Thumbsucker soundtrack – even in just those three little songs, which are haunting and wildly evocative in the context of the movie as well as beyond it. The logic of including Smith goes beyond this, however; Smith’s soul-weary lyrics remind (at their best) of the insights of John Lennon, both with The Beatles and beyond. It is music that reveals the singer’s desperation to break free of a cycle he’s powerless to stop. On two of Smith’s later albums – Either/Or and XO – the same is true. The success of these albums is in the songwriting, more than anything else; Smith seems to have known what mattered to him, and as with the sense of desperate energy that comes with the best of Cobain and Nirvana, the performance was a vehicle as much as anything else. For instance, in “Pictures of Me,” from Either/Or, Smith sings:

Not surprised at all, and really, why should I be,
See nothing wrong, see nothing wrong,
So sick and tired of all these pictures of me,
Completely wrong, totally wrong

The world doesn’t get him, he knows it, and now we know it, too. Elliott Smith is more than just the flip side of The Polyphonic Spree’s musical exuberance – stripped down, vocally raw, and musically spare-sounding even at full tilt – and lyrical happiness. His songs – those on his own albums, as well as the three on the Thumbsucker soundtrack – are like the cynical Lennon to DeLaughter’s spritely, sentimental McCartney. Mix these various albums together, and you get a blended experience that may be stronger than either could be on their own. At the least, it tempers the highs and lows of these contrasting moods.

Enter The Shins: surreal, caustic, or cynical; uptempo, warm, or inviting. The Shins were introduced as nothing less than world-changing by another movie and its soundtrack: Garden State. As much as “Caring is Creepy” and “New Slang” – the two songs featured there – are definitely that, they are just the beginning, a curious introduction to two albums that capture everything from teenage angst and love to our search for control at all costs. As they sing in “Young Pilgrims,” from their second album, Chutes Too Narrow:

But I learned fast how to keep my head up
‘Cause I know there is this side of me that
Wants to grab the yoke from the pilot
And just fly the whole mess into the sea

References to Mop-Tops would be a mistake here; these are no early Beatles, three men fighting it out for vocal and guitar dominance over Ringo’s drums. There is, though, a Lennon-McCartney-esque root here, seeking out varietals on rhyme and syncopation, mixing rock and American Country sounds, and weaving allusions to how we lead our lives – think about them, feel them, worry them, and enjoy them – that recalls the best of The Beatles, from the sentimental (“In My Life”) to the absurd (“Come Together”). Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow are two great albums, worth any contemporary music fan’s time and attention.

[1] In a 2001 essay in Reason, Charles Paul Freund tracks the late-Beatles’ influence back to the old English Music Hall experience, which provides some insight into this. (See “Still Fab: Why we keep listening to the Beatles,” by Charles Paul Freund, Reason, June 2001.) More to the point here, they understood how shifting sounds and tempos could keep a listener’s rapt attention.

Copyright 2005, by Sascha Freudenheim. No re-publication without permission, but you may link to this page as desired. You are visiting sascha.com.