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Published: 2003/11/15
by Jesse Jarnow

The Polyphonic Spree, Warsaw, Brooklyn, NY- 11/7

NYC ROLL-TOP: Hey, It’s The Sun!

The late comedian-cum-philosopher Bill Hicks once pronounced that any
musician whose work has appeared in a television commercial guilty of
"sucking Satan’s pecker… off the artistic roll-call forever." Were
he still alive, and had time to worry about rock bands, this may have given
him an in-born bias against Dallas’s The Polyphonic Spree, whose "Light and
Day" has been booming from Volkswagen commercials for the past several
months, part of an endorsement deal brokered between an automobile
manufacturer, a computer company (iPods were somehow involved, too), and a
25 piece symphonic rock band who perform in white robes and may or may not
be a cult. Given the Texas thing, Hicks may’ve been forgiving (or, at least,
more understanding). Given that advertising directors are generally a hipper
and more imaginative breed than radio programmers these days, the result is
that there is frequently more cutting-edge work available through that
medium than the relatively inaccessible world of pop radio. These kinds of
contradictions are practically built-in to The Polyphonic Spree, who played
to a sold-out crowd at Brooklyn’s Warsaw on Friday night.

The band’s music is a swirlingly joyous blend of sunshine pop (ala The
Flaming Lips), showtuney quasi-rock (ala Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus
Christ Superstar), and pure Texas cultdom (ala, um, David Koresh).
Frontman Tim DeLaughter, stalks the stage like any self-respecting wanna-be
messiah should, spreading his arms, one foot atop a monitor a wedge, and
smiling blissfully while the band explodes in a rainbow behind him: the rock
ensemble usuals plus harp, tympani, theramin, horns, choir, and
novelty-rocker Corn Mo (joining the band as a choir member). Group members
jump around, hair tossing every which way while grins plaster their sweaty
faces, effectively underscoring their devotion to their Leader. (I swear
that the last time I saw them, a few months ago, it was the young French
horn player’s first gig, and he stood somewhat awkwardly while the band
jerked convulsively around him. If it’s the same guy, he’s now letting his
freak flag fly with the rest of ‘em, as his newly grown-out hair whips
about. If it’s not the same guy, he might as well be, the point proving
itself by mere plausibility. So there.)

And the band sings the praises of… well, who do they sing the
praises of? It’s devotional music, for sure – the last time they played in
New York, they were deliberately paired with the Total Praise Gospel Choir
at Central Park’s Summerstage – but the name "Jesus" is certainly never
uttered, nor is the name of any other deity or religious figure. Indeed,
there is nothing resembling judgment, and one is left with pure
non-denominational joy. So, DeLaughter is left at the front of the stage
singing the praises of praises. The Polyphonic Spree celebrates happiness.
As long as that can feed itself, it’s fine, but – after a certain point,
usually after about 45 minutes – being happy about being happy starts to
feel like the myth of perpetual motion. One might be able to minimize the
loss, but there will always be diminishment. For this, DeLaughter does his
maybe-Christian best to keep the motion going. His methods include the usual
frontman crowd incitement (waving his hands around), but also lots of banter
about the excitement being generated, constantly reminding the crowd how
good a time they’re having.

If it feels cyclical, it also feels a little cynical — which is really what
happens when the returns on forced musical happiness begin to get
diminished. They don’t disappear. Like kinetic energy shifting right back to
potential energy, the bliss begins to harden into cynicism. As the returns
began to dwindle, near the end of the set, in the back of the room, as one
patron may or may not have knocked into another, a fight nearly broke out —
which either proves that the Spree aren’t as effective as they might be,
that drunks will be drunks, or both.

As with the Summerstage show, the band encored with a cover of "Wig In A
Box," from the glam-rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The song
pretty much nails what the Spree are all about. "On nights like this, when
the world’s a bit amiss," the lyrics begin setting the scene, eventually
building to the chorus: "I put on some make-up / And turn up the eight-track
/ I’m pulling the wig down from the shelf / Suddenly I’m Miss. Farrah
Fawcett / From TV / And I wake up / And turn back to myself." While
DeLaughter’s not turning himself into Farrah Fawcett, exactly, he is still
turning himself into something else by pulling on a white robe and strutting
out onto a stage.

As such, DeLaughter is not a messiah. He’s a guy dressed up as one, and
reveals that through his choice of covers. And that can be fun to watch,
especially ‘cause it can be fun to dress up as a disciple. But it’s also a
little distancing, making it a little harder to buy into DeLaughter’s
performance and, thus, into one’s own immediate feelings. But, as his own
ridiculously catchy song goes: "hey now, it’s the sun, and it’s makin’ me
smile." And you can’t argue with that.

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