By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It's been a slow build for Chomsky. A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life was released in 1999 with little fanfare, and subsequent gigs entertained more friends and fellow musicians than fans. But by the time the "00:15:00" single and full-length Onward Quirky Soldiers came out last year, the Chomsky Army had swelled to vast legions, loyal enough to consistently pack venues and stuff ballot boxes. The key to Chomsky's success is their broad, but not bland, appeal: They are cute enough for your girlfriend to like, but harmless enough for you to allow her to. They rock hard enough to engage the sweaty meathead, but not so hard that the meek intellectuals are scared away. They reference XTC and the Police enough to impress rock critics, yet they have enough in common with blink-182 to reach dumbed-down Edge listeners.
One listen to Onward Quirky Soldiers confirms Chomsky's bankabilty. The opening coos of "Straight Razor" explode into a syncopated new-wave melody that surprises with its earnestness. Ditto for the album's other uptempo numbers, "00:15:00," "Herod's Daughter" and "Laughing"--all cheeky and sincere at once. When they dial it down a notch or two--"Inside," "Light," "Destination"--the effect is hypnotic with subtle thrills and thick crawl-inside-your-head choruses. The big album closer, "Rollers," sums up Chomsky's acidic wit and charm as Halleck sings in his ode to tolerance, "I do one thing with rump rangers/I don't pay no mind what they do with their behinds." As much as Chomsky doesn't take itself too seriously, though, there's no Redd Kross wink-wink kitsch on Onward Quirky Soldiers. And it may be an homage to the '80s, but its sound is decidedly now; as comfortable in Skechers as it is in Vans. Whether or not the rest of the world ever gets Chomsky remains to be seen, but here's hoping. --Dave Lane
Winner for: Musician of the Year
Polyphonic Spree played South by Southwest last month--owned it, actually, as evidenced by the post-conference press clippings (which prove, among other things, rock journalists can't add). To wit: From the London Guardian, March 29: "Most people agree that the most likely future stars present are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a scuzzy rock band from New York, and the Polyphonic Spree, a remarkable 28-piece Dallas ensemble featuring a choir, a brass and string section, all clad in matching white robes." From the Chicago Sun-Times, March 18: "Led by gleefully goofy Tripping Daisy veteran Tim DeLaughter, the Polyphonic Spree was a Dallas ensemble that crossed Pet Sounds and Up With People for a genre that can only be called 'Wellbutrin-rock.' Fronting a 10-piece choir and a 13-piece band including theremin and French horn (and with everyone adorned in angelic white robes), DeLaughter sang uplifting odes about sunshine and smiles, leaving the most jaded hipsters grinning joyfully." And, last, from The New York Times, March 18, complete with color pic: Polyphonic Spree "offered a purposeful burst of optimism for an event where a dip in superstar sales, and the fear that Internet file-swapping will make recordings less profitable, could not subdue the pleasures of live music or the ambitions of do-it-yourself bands."
So, yeah. The Tim DeLaughter-fronted band--conceptual-pop army's more like it--is be-freakin'-loved, maybe more so out of town than in, but that's usually what happens to local musical vets. They're embraced by the out-of-towners who fall in love with their imported exotica, while we just take it for granted, like this big band's no big deal. What we write off as rote, as though such a thing were possible with this killing Spree, others perceive as a blessing, and correctly so; not since Lennon-McCartney tried to keep pace with Brian Wilson tried to keep pace with Phil Spector has there been so majestic and stirring a pop swell as last year's The Beginning Stages Of..., which makes you feel good by just holding the thing, never mind actually playing it.
That DeLaughter should form Polyphonic Spree from the trampled stems of Tripping Daisy--which had to deal with being misled and mishandled by its label, Island, and couldn't withstand the 1999 overdose death of guitarist Wes Berggren--was remarkable and maybe even appropriate. After all, when confronted with anger and tragedy one has two choices: to disappear into grief's long, heavy shadow or step out of its way in a defiant act of optimism. Those who know DeLaughter, now father and co-founder of Good Records, insist there was never any question; it's sunny-side up, even on a cloudy day. And so Polyphonic Spree spreads it gospel in print and in prayer (these songs will convert the pop-and-roll atheist), evincing tears of joy from critics and cynics alike who discovered there's nothing better than, well, feeling better. --Robert Wilonsky
Fred Savage Fanclub
Winner for: Female Vocalist (Sara Radle); Best New Act
Sara Radle could beam with pride that Fred Savage Fanclub--which started as a one-woman solo side project spun off from the pop-punk trio Lucy Loves Schroeder--wins Best New Act here, beating out a bunch of all-male bands (and fellow one-woman band Chao, led by erstwhile Captain Audio innovator Regina Chellew). But it's not about being female, at least not to her. To Radle, these two awards should mean that she's getting the respect she's worked for with both Fred Savage Fanclub and Lucy Loves Schroeder. (Just two months ago she told the Observer, "I think that sometimes it is hard to be taken seriously just as a female in the music scene at least initially.")