Crate-Digging: The Polyphonic Spree – The Beginning Stages of…

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Hollywood/Good, 2002)

We all need to feel good. The Polyphonic Spree knows that, and they’re here to oblige us with all manner of sweet, sugary surprises. You know The Polyphonic Spree, right? They’re the twenty-plus-member-strong indie chorale outfit reknowned for their pack mentality and penchant for dressing alike. The Beginning Stages of… was their first album, and at this point they draped themselves in white choir robes, exhuding a particularly cultish vibe that they really didn’t try very hard to shake. The band’s neo-hippie-dippyness seemed all-inclusive, a come-on-get-happy smilefest for everybody, complete with singalong numbers and crowd-pleasing participative manipulation. Everybody was supposed to smile on their brother, stand shoulder to shoulder with arms around each other, and kum-ba-yah their worries away. I first heard the band on NPR’s All Things Considered program – fitting, as the band really does appeal to a mass audience. I bought the record in 2003, in Minneapolis of all random places.

According to the band’s Wikipedia entry, the group formed upon the dissolution of Tripping Daisy after guitarist Wes Berggren died of a drug overdose. (You may remember Tripping Daisy’s weirdo MTV hit “I Got a Girl” from their album I Am an Elastic Firecracker – you know, I should probably revisit their catalog…) As a reaction to such a sad event, frontman Tim DeLaughter went in the absolute opposite direction, apparently needing a huge dose of hope under the circumstances. And he dreamed up this band, and it was so – filled to the brim with all types of musicians and singers, bursting with enthusiasm, a new family with which DeLaughter could surround himself. And surround himself he did – oh he for sure done did – as the entire crew toured together, traveling carnival-style. I don’t know if I’d want to be on that tour bus after a week or so – I can only stand so many dirty socks. But it seemed to work – I didn’t hear any complaints in the media, and I don’t really feel like opening a search engine right now to check, but the lovefest certainly continued for two subsequent albums (and the band is still in existence in some form), so we’ll leave it at that.

If they were attempting to cultivate a vibe, it certainly worked – The Beginning Stages of… opens softly on woodwinds and horns, sun gradually rising to wake all nature from its slumber and bake “Section 1 (Have a Day/Celebratory)” in its warmth. (The whole album is broken up this way, as Sections 1 through 10. I don’t know why.) This was the song NPR chose to play the longest on its broadcast, and it’s the one I latched onto the quickest. It’s incredibly infectious, as it builds to a climax of joyous beauty, gradually layering more and more sound upon itself. Its sentiments are very simple too, as “Have a day / Celebrate / Soon, you’ll find the answer,” comprises most of what DeLaughter is trying to get across. You know, the whole “It’s going to be OK” thing. And that’s cool, you can mellow out in that part of the pool for the day, but it’s still the shallow end and merely a nice beginning. What The Beginning Stages of… doesn’t do is wade much deeper.

Cover of the bonus disc that came with the album.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its nice moments, and it certainly does. “Section 2 (It’s the Sun)” (noticing a theme?) switches up its rhythm throughout, but it’s a little long, and I actually prefer the live “KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic Version” on the bonus disc that came with the album, as the energy level is quite a bit higher. I think it’s probably at this point where the knowledge that The Beginning Stages of… was actually recorded as a demo (albeit a really nice-sounding demo) – The Spree hadn’t had much of a chance to work out the material in a live setting, which undoubtedly helped flesh out the performances. “Section 3 (Days Like This Keep Me Warm)” is a woozy mid-morning stroll through a meadow, a pleasant excursion wherein you can almost hear birds chirping, smell the honeysuckle blooming, and see the stream trickling past – an innocent lark. And the band kind of stays here … kind of in a rut, actually. For the next few tunes. (Although I should mention “Section 4 (La La)” gets a little rambunctious, but it only lasts about two minutes.)

It isn’t until “Section 8 (Soldier Girl)” that the band revs up again in a skyward chant about … having a soldier girl? There’s not much to it whatsoever, but it’s a nifty little diversion before the true highlight of the album: “Section 9 (Light & Day/Reach for the Sun).” (Not to be confused with Session 9, the psychological thriller. Although that’s a good one and you should watch it…) You might recognize this tune – it’s been featured in commercials for Volkswagen and iPod, and the band “performed” it – well, hammed it up and lip-synched it – on an episode of Scrubs, the one where one of the band members is admitted to the hospital. (That Zach Braff – did he have something to do with that? Regardless, those music licensers aren’t getting paid enough.) The entire band (or troupe, or cult, or tribe – who knows at this point) fills the hospital room. It’s goofy and fun and there are balloons – oh right, the song. The shimmery delayed descending guitar leads that open “Light & Day” are like a breath of fresh air through a misty rain on an otherwise sunny morning – it makes you look forward to getting out of bed to greet the day. It builds into the band’s best stadium anthem and shakes the sleep from your system, a caffeinated injection of beauty and excitement. It’s worth getting through the album for.

How you feel about the culty hippie schtick is probably going to influence how you feel about the album itself. It is what it is – a choral pop confection coated in day-glo feel-goodness, something that’s definitely not for everyone. And that last track, the 36-minute boreathon “Section 10 (A Long Day)” – I don’t know what they were thinking. I guess they needed the filler? It’s pointless. Don’t listen to it.

RIYL: Tripping Daisy, The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev

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