Enormous and lavish. Tim DeLaughter's little combo are back....
Jaime Gill 2007-08-24
The third album by The Polyphonic Spree comes with instructions to listen to it as ‘one complete track’ for optimum effect. In these days of ipods and lucky dip listening this is charmingly old-fashioned advice - like the band themselves - but it's also a tall order. The Fragile Army is so enormous and lavish, with its 24 players,
everything-and-the-kitchen-sink production and sugary multi-tracked harmonies, that trying to consume it in one sitting is like trying to force down an entire wedding cake in one go.
Still, chewed slowly and savoured piece by piece, it's also by some distance the Sprees' most rewarding record. If the Texans once had a whiff of novelty about them, with their white robes, Pollyanna optimism and sheer ridiculous numbers, The Fragile Army finally shakes that off. This is partly due to some tougher lyrical themes, with a new disillusionment with Bush's America lurking underneath the usual pleas for togetherness and common humanity, but it's mostly due to a dramatic improvement in Tim DeLaughter and Julie Doyle's songwriting.
Opener "Running Away" is instantly rousing, a martial rush of guitars, flutes, horns and wall of sound percussion topped off with a gorgeous chorus as carefree as the Mamas and the Papas at their most innocent. When it's followed by the pounding, exhilarating "Get Up And Go", it's clear that The Fragile Army is a far more focused record than its predecessors, less likely to drift into meandering solos or half-baked psychedelia.
It's also a lot more varied. The title track flits from piano ballad to gospel chorus to jaunty music hall, and if it doesn't quite work, then the pretty, forlorn "We Crawl" certainly does, with a melody as warm and direct as REM in their lost prime. But the best thing here is the remarkable "Light To Follow", which opens with a crunching hip hop beat and moody electronica before gently unfolding into the kind of delicate epic the Flaming Lips would envy.
There are mis-fires - "Guaranteed Nightlife" flies a little too close to sixties kitsch - but for the most part The Fragile Army is the sound of a band delivering on their early promise, a sunny delight. It's also one of the nicest surprises in a year which has sorely lacked them.