Artist: The Polyphonic Spree
Album: The Fragile Army
Comments: Here is a short list of facts about The Polyphonic Spree that I feel should be stated before we move forward.
1) The Polyphonic Spree is a 24-piece band that includes a choir and a woodwind section regularly in their touring and recording.
2) The PS used to all wear white robes on stage. They looked like a cult.
3) For this record, the PS changed their look from white robes to black military-ish uniforms.
I mention this, not because it is important, but because it seems to be all people can talk about when discussing this new record, The Fragile Army. People are getting caught up in the spectacle, the gimmick of the Polyphonic Spree, and focusing less on the actual record.
(And yes, I realize that my point, which is that people are focusing too much on the appearance and not the substance, is ruined seeing as my opening paragraph is all about how people are focusing on the appearance and not the substance. I could do this all day. Let’s move on.)
Clothes aside, The Fragile Army is the Spree’s most focused and streamlined work to date. They have taken their larger-than-life orchestra rock, reined it in, and fit it all on to one CD.
All the problems with the earlier Spree records are addressed and fixed here on this record, except for one. A big complaint about the Spree was that their sound was almost TOO big, TOO joyful. Band leader Tim DeLaughter’s sunny pop songs were all muddled by the sheer numbers in the Spree. Everyone would play all at once, making it hard to focus on individual harmonies or drum fills or horn flourishes. Because no one was allowed to stand out, nothing stood out. That problem is solved on The Fragile Army. Band members wait for their moment, then, come in strong with a horn blast or a string flourish or piano note that strengthens the songs more with their restraint than their excess ever could.
And as far as the criticism that their music is just too damn happy, The Spree have darkened their scope a little bit; taking their pill-popping, reckless, cult-like, sun-worshiping happiness and applying it in a more political way. The general feel of the record screams “Hey! Ok, sure, things aren’t going too great. But don’t worry! Everything will be fantastic tomorrow! Oh, hey, look how pretty that rainbow is! Kittens! Weeeeeee!” If this kind of sugar pop is to your liking, then look no further than the Spree.
Still, for all the improvements in sound, The Fragile Army still sounds lacking. For a band built around joy and exuberance, this record is missing that breakout, big swelling pop song that can really sell the point. That’s why people could enjoy The Beginning Stages… and get over the muddled orchestra pop/rock; there was the big joyous payoff of “Follow the Day”. The closest the band can get to that on this record is the first single and album opener; “Running Away.” This is a swelling rock track with all the right lyrics, guitar solos, and beautiful instrumentation to almost sell the joy of the Spree. Almost.
There is a lot to take in on The Fragile Army. Between the sheer numbers, the upbeat pop construction of the songs, and the multiple instruments on this record, I am 100% sure that these guys are a phenomenal live act. With their over-the-top happiness and wall of sound quality, I’m sure that a tour with Andrew W. K and The Flaming Lips would solve all of the world’s hunger problems. But despite their best efforts, the Spree can’t translate that on to their record. The Fragile Army was shooting for jubilant rapture. It will have to settle for pleasing satisfaction.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Key Tracks: Running Away, The Fragile Army, Mental Cabaret
Worth The Money: Sadly, I don’t think it is for the casual fan.