Listening to the Polyphonic Spree's studio recordings over the years has been a revelatory and sometimes frustrating experience. The reason is quite simple: excess. Not that excess in and of itself is a bad thing. In many cases it's the excess of joy and celebratory mass euphoria that Tim DeLaughter and crew put into their recordings that can be overwhelming at times and push the listener into spaces she or he might not otherwise even consider -- but to be taken there all the time is at times a bit much. Every band should have "problems" like these. That said, they are never irritating, not even slightly ridiculous. As a band they have put it out there on every record, holding nothing back. This is even true of the Fragile Army, a recording that offers new directions in this band and which combines Phil Spector-ish orgiastic excess, spiritual temerity, and the willful self-consciousness that allows emotion full reign in a blend of music that underscores emotion even while being outrageously sophisticated in structure, using the choir, woodwinds, and of course guitars, basses, drums, and keyboard. Theirs is the most aggressively tender music in pop. Forget the indie rock thing; this band has nothing to do with that whole ghetto.
This performance of the Polyphonic Spree at Austin City Limits is a kind of test. Recorded in 2004, PS performs much of the Together We're Heavy album with a few oldies but goodies tossed in, but it all flows. The title track that closes that album isn't here; they perform "Section 2: It's the Sun," and the band kicks the show off with harpist Ricky Rasura's "Bizarre Prayer."
What comes across over this 51-minute performance is that the excess that comes out of the recording studio to the listener is all here, but because of the "smoothing" process that happens during the mixing, that excess is absent here. Many of the Live from Austin, TX discs sound flat and lifeless, the energetic quality of a performance aired on television is utterly absent on digitally imprinted plastic. In this case? It crackles, bristles, wails and soars. It feels so organic and intrinsically real that it offers an accurate picture of this outrageously large band (24 pieces here) in front of an audience. There are a few ragged edges in "Section 2: It's the Sun," where the choir sort of overwhelms itself, but the horns, harp, and dynamics of this piece -- even with the intonation slightly off -- has so much heart it can not only be forgiven but celebrated for how well such a thing comes off. It's the biggest sounding song they've ever done, and it feels like it should be a finale, but it happens in track three!
There are also moments of great intimacy here, as in "Section 16: One Man Show," with the harp and flutes hovering around DeLaughter as he delivers one of his most heartfelt lyrics. When you get to the finale, "Section 19: When the Fool Becomes a King," the great promise of David Bowie's Hunky Dory, through the outrageous decadent excesses of his Diamond Dogs periods is brought into the clear light of a new morning in a looking glass: Live is rooted in the same glammed-out psychedelia and prog rock, yet it's anything but decadent. "Love the life you choose/keep yourself feeling brand new/Love your strife with life/Everyone wants to know why/And Love your strife for you/Keep yourself feeling brand new/And love your strife with God/Yes everyone wants to know love...." It sounds like the ending to Godspell, but it's so much tougher, it rocks so much harder, and is so utterly poignant: these guys mean it. The end if album brings, as predicted, exhaustion on the listener's part, yes, but some kind of nervous exhilaration, too. How can anyone say anything like this during wartime? Never did it need to be said more. And PS -- that wild neo-hippie crew from Texas -- do just that. "Hail to the sky..." indeed. The only thing that could improve this performance is seeing it. And you can see it as there is a brilliantly shot DVD/CD edition available, as well. Thank your gods for Polyphonic Spree. This is precisely the kind of excess needed in uncertain times: excessive optimism that is not naïve.