CD Review of The Fragile Army by Polyphonic Spree

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The Fragile Army
starstarstarstarno star Label: TVT
Released: 2007
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My review of Together We’re Heavy, the long-awaited sophomore effort from Tim DeLaughter’s free-spirited collective Polyphonic Spree, is what sealed my fate with the PTB at the Pop Candy-endorsed e-zine PopMatters. I wrote for them for years (as have/do several other BE staffers), but nothing was ever the same between us after my review for this album. What was wrong with the review?

I never wrote it.

They have word counts over there, you see – big ones, too – and for the life of me, I could not figure out how to spend 600 words saying, “Eh. It’s okay.” I was seriously tempted to write “Eh. It’s okay,” then copy and paste “Screw Flanders” repeatedly until the word count requirement was met. Instead, I did nothing, and not coincidentally, I never received another high-profile album to review for them. Fair enough. That’s what I get.

But seriously, Together We’re Heavy really was just an ‘eh’ kind of record. You could tell that DeLaughter was having a hell of a time reconciling the loosey-goosey nature of his “band” with the stone-cold reality that people now expected something from them. “No more free-wheeling, kids. We need some tunes!” And Together We’re Heavy did not have the tunes.

This time, he didn’t forget the tunes. Shedding the white Hare Krishna robes in favor of black uniforms that look like the Goth division of the Red Cross, the Polyphonic Spree’s third album, The Fragile Army, is the album DeLaughter should have made last time around but was afraid to. It’s understandable that DeLaughter was reluctant to give up his hopeful idealism in order to survive, but it was a move that needed to be made, and the band is better off for it.

It only takes a couple seconds of “Running Away,” the first real song on The Fragile Army (the leadoff track is the 29-second “Together We’re Heavy”), to realize that DeLaughter discovered what the Spree’s previous record was lacking: structure. Yes, the full band is here, but instead of everyone doing their own thing to a common vibe, people have marks to hit and spaces to fill. Perhaps it was making the Wait EP, which featured cover versions of “Love My Way” and “Lithium,” that got them thinking along more conventional lines. Whatever the case, the last album didn’t have anything within a mile of the driving “Get Up and Go” or the ballad “We Crawl,” which sounds like Burt Bacharach taking a whack at Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” Bryan Wakeland’s drums pop like Steve Albini’s behind the boards (he’s not; the album was produced by the Paper Chase’s John Congleton), and the band, for the first time, sounds more like a rock band than the cast of “Godspell” making a Flaming Lips album.

DeLaughter came up with great titles for his last two albums, but he got them backwards; The Fragile Army is the album that should have been called Together We’re Heavy, and vice versa. There is nothing fragile about this record, while the previous one hangs together by a string. Here’s hoping that the fourth time around, DeLaughter goes balls out and titles the band’s next album The Polyphonic Spree Owns Your Soul. Screw Flanders.

~David Medsker