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By Jim Schutze
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The revolution was not televised, nor was it sold at the local record shop. Colorful chamber-pop collective the Polyphonic Spree instead digitally released one of the best albums of the year, the five-song EP Wait.
Bookended by two songs from the group's forthcoming full-length, A Fragile Army, which is tentatively set for release in late spring and features production by the Paper Chase's John Congleton, "Mental Cabaret" and "I'm Calling" both reveal the angelic noise brigade's struggle to find strength in its numbers and power through its passive resistance. The songs evoke an overwhelming sense of urgency—anthemic, powerful and sincere. With joined hands and matching uniforms, the 20-plus member band dances with faith and marches to its own beat against the black parade.
"You'd have to live with your head in the sand to not be affected by what's going on, especially if you're an artist or a songwriter," Spree front man and maestro Tim DeLaughter says. "This is our way of fighting back."
The Spree also sprinkles its spiritual zeal over Nirvana's "Lithium," portraying the oft-ignored other end of bipolar disorder, the moments of unadulterated mania. The interpretation of Cobain is literal: Their will is good; they are so happy and dazed to have found God. The group also covers Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way" and Tripping Daisy's "Sonic Bloom," the latter offering a personal insight into DeLaughter's past, present and future.
"Anybody that knows me knows I've missed that band terribly," DeLaughter says of Tripping Daisy, whose tragic end inspired the larger-than-life production of the Polyphonic Spree. "When we decided to call it quits, or when Wes [Berggren] decided to leave the earth, we were really getting ready to go into the place we were always working towards. So, for me, to take Polyphonic Spree there was just awesome. I loved every minute of it."
Aside from its obvious musical merit, what made the WaitEP so relevant and important in 2006 is that it successfully utilized all of the advantages that the impending digital age offers and established a precedent for other bands to follow suit. As the owner of both Good Records the music label, which has put out releases from Grandaddy, Centro-matic and Pilotdrift, and the local music shop of the same name (1808 Lower Greenville Ave.), DeLaughter knows a thing or two about the business of music. He cites the closure of chain outlets such as Tower Records and the Virgin Megastore, as well as Sound Warehouse and Pagan Rhythms in Dallas as evidence for a new trend in consumer consumption.
"It sure seems like it's breathing down my neck lately," DeLaughter laughed. "It's all basically because people are getting their music through the Internet. It's just so much easier for people to get music from their bedroom on their computers. It's quick and it's right then."
For DeLaughter, the decision to allow iTunes to release the EP came down to convenience and simple logistics. "At the time I was, and I kind of still am, in between record deals, so I thought, 'Why not? I'll go ahead and try it out.'"
Digital-only releases, like Wait, offer an array of financial benefits. They completely eliminate the costs of production and shipping, while cutting the various delay times associated with each process. For the MySpace generation, which places more emphasis on cell phone ringtones than classic albums and can forget a band faster than you can say Tapes 'n Tapes, digital-only releases allow bands to remain in the consumer's consciousness longer. The Polyphonic Spree were able to capitalize on the success of their phenomenal score for Mike Mills' Thumbsuckerand their contributions to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, NBC's Scrubsand Showtime's Weedslast year, while building anticipation for the upcoming release. The EP gave the band a reason to tour, which led to a remarkable show at Granada Theater in September, and proved that pivotal media outlets like pitchforkmedia.com would take note of this new medium.
DeLaughter sang similar praises of iTunes. "They're so organized. They're able to reach a large scale of people almost at a moment's notice, as well as niche market. To me, it seems like an apparent next step for myself and a lot of people. It's a lot easier," he says. However, the success is bittersweet for the Spree leader. "At the same time it's a bit disheartening since I love the idea of going and searching, being turned on and buying a record and having a physical copy in my hands," DeLaughter adds. "We're facing the inevitable now. I'm not blind to it. I kind of just have to ride along with it."
Either way, The Fragile Armywill continue to divide and conquer. Vive la Résistance!