On its third proper full-length and first for new label TVT, Texas supergroup -- in numbers, that is -- Polyphonic Spree, the only rock & roll band to boast a full size choir as part of its recording and touring incarnations, ditch the robes in favor of black military style outfits with red crosses stitched properly into place and displayed prominently. Director Mike Mills named the album. The PS's frontman and chief composer Tim DeLaughter scored his debut feature film Thumbsucker for the indie big screen (after the death of its original composer Elliott Smith). Musically, The Fragile Army is both a return to tried and true methods and simultaneously, a departure. The enormous sound of the PS, with its tightly structured compositions by DeLaughter and Julie Doyle hasn't changed that much. One can hear elements of every big rock production band from the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev to David Bowie in its sonic mix. And PS's trademark sunshine-drenched pop symphonica hasn't disappeared, or even taken a hiatus. It's here. What's new is a more textured melancholy in the darker, or at least sadder-themed songs that appeared first on the group's Wait EP earlier in 2007. There is equal weight given to both.
A fine example is on the title track (also known as "Section 24" in the band's numerically ordered catalog). Beginning with a mournful solo piano and DeLaughter's opening words: "Oh how we miss/They're so far gone/Will they move when the valley explodes/We'll make no mistakes, if they move too late/Well we wish that they would have called you home/Hold the line/Please be right/You left them on the floor/Hold the line call off the strike/We left them on the floor/Oh no, oh no...." It would be an elegy, except that then the brass section kicks in halfway through the verse, the choir enters in response, and we can hear Bowie on Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, finding a requiem for that which has passed and the regret involved in not taking the opportunity to reach out when everything was still possible. Typewriter sounds, synths, fat horns, and the swirling choir explode into the middle of this mournful pop gem: "It's time for you to lose your excitement..." In exactly four minutes the song moves from slow ballad to blown-out glam vaudeville suite. It opens onto "We Crawl," with an Herb Alpert-styled opening horn line, painted by piano, guitars, and popping snare drums as DeLaughter sings: "Well everybody tries, to keep themselves alive/You were younger yesterday/And feelin' not so gray..." the piano answers, chords wind around the melody, and DeLaughter answers it: "Well everybody cries/I think I'm beginning to find/I was younger yesterday/And I'm feelin' not so gray/We're layin down in bed/The days go by in my head/Yeah, I'll fake it if I can't sleep/And together we can get some relief..." before the choir and the band slide right in stride "And now you know you're beautiful/You've always wondered/Now you know/Everything's alright...Together We're alright." As the piano finds itself in the heart of the melody, the tune changes and becomes truly plural. But the place, it seems, "we're alright," is in our brokenness, doubt, and feelings of inadequacy, and flaws. Together we make a whole. As the tune becomes a majestically wrought pomp and circumstance march by a rag-tag, shoeless group of survivors, it's obvious this is the only kind of optimism possible because it's not rooted in post-hippie idealism, but in everyday life and its all-but-impossible sense of failure.
The Fragile Army succeeds in large part because of the groundedness of its subject matter. Its production is truly elegant thanks to John Congleton and mixing engineer Jay Ruston. The melodies are far more varied than on previous outings, and the sense of dynamics and balance of tension in these songs -- and the arrangements that accompany them -- are the most sophisticated this group has ever pulled off. On The Fragile Army PS seem more like a group and not simply personnel share cropping of its members for the ideas of DeLaughter. There's a kind of democratically shared weight in these tunes: check the instrumental interplay against the singers in "Mental Cabaret" (which was the leadoff track from the Wait EP). Bowie is thanked in the credits for his support. While there's no doubt he provided it in speaking about them publicly, he also provided an inspiration that goes far beyond. Here is the grand pop image watching the past watch itself in the mirror of the future. Bowie is the Magi who called it to life -- in a sense -- toward the middle of the '70s, exploding his own myth just to create a new one. Uniforms notwithstanding, PS is a pop group that embodies a new American mythology where drama, emotion, brokenness and a penchant for idealism in spite of it all are played out in fantastically simple poetry and glorious splashes of primary colors -- in this case the choice of red, white, blue and black is unmistakable. The Spree are no longer soaked in smiley-face naïveté, they communally address, in their own musical language -- which embodies everything from psychedelic rock, easy listening, glam, Gilbert & Sullivan chorale, and even shapeshifting electronic chilliness (check "Light to Follow") -- to illustrate what cannot be spoken or addressed by bombast. Some of the band's earlier fans may be put off by the polish that's here, while many who haven't heard PS before may be drawn to its infectious pop musicology wherein love, laughter, death, grief and dislocation are all broached and given shares inside a wildly accessible record album. For some The Fragile Army will feel like a complete rejection of indie rock and its post-intellectual notions of cred and sellout. That's good; it means that the Spree are on the right track to being down here on the ground with the rest of us instead of watching with studied detachment from under a pair of shades in a bed sit somewhere. One can only hope that a recording this finely and carefully crafted, and designed to be heard, will in fact be so, by more than the "in the know" few. The Fragile Army is about the many places we are alike collectively, but find ourselves alone, and in that realization we may come together to form a new community. It's a noble intention offered in a very simple and direct way, with lots of beautiful noise to carry the message. If this is indeed where pop can travel in an age of replication and cultural dis-ease, then let there be more.