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Choral arrangements
The Polyphonic Spree and the Free Design

Reviewing their half of a split single with Grandaddy, Village Voice music editor Chuck Eddy recently called the Polyphonic Spree "the worst band in human existence." Eddy hasn’t spent enough time with their debut album, The Beginning Stage . . . (Hollywood). The 22-to-29-member orchestral-pop troupe may in fact be one of the worst bands ever; they’re gimmicky, musically undernourished, and possessed of a certain marketing savvy — i.e., their un-navigably flashy Web site, and a VW ad — that belies their choir-robed, sun-struck positivity. Convened by former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim deLaughter after the 1999 overdose death of guitarist Wes Breggen, they’ve been in high gear since a David Bowie–approved 2002 appearance at London’s Meltdown Festival. They’re also slated to open Bowie’s upcoming US tour, which hits the FleetCenter on March 30.

As a feature story on 50-plus legs, the Spree and their press-and-NPR-darling status make perfect sense. Their appeal for actual listeners, especially self-consciously hip ones, is more puzzling; their music could easily accompany the sort of compulsory assembly any mildly rebellious (or halfway conscious) high-schooler would risk detention to avoid. "Soldier’s Girl," in particular, cries out for a voiceover from your local Army recruitment officer. Not all of The Beginning Stages is quite this awful. "Middle of the Day" has a certain atonal, sleep-deprived wooziness, and the instrumental intros of several songs threaten to lead somewhere.

No such luck — almost every track devolves into a jingle-ready fragment allegedly inspired by "classic ’60s popcraft." (Exception: the closing "A Long Day," a 36-minute synth-drone snooze.) Re-recordings of the same material on subsequent EPs slicken the album’s lazy, collectively conceived arrangements without improving the underlying songs. Worse still, the ensemble’s vocals don’t live up to their billing. The mass-chorus ending of "Light and Day Reach for the Sun" isn’t just thinly harmonized, it’s almost monophonic. Anyone who compares the Polyphonic Spree to the Association or the Fifth Dimension either has forgotten how these groups actually sounded or never knew.

For a less-familiar reminder of how ambitious and idiosyncratic so-called orch-pop can be, consider the Free Design. Centered on the vocal blend among writer/arranger Chris Dedrick and siblings Sandy, Ellen, and Bruce (all children of Vaughn Monroe sideman Art Dedrick), the group released seven albums between 1967 and 1972. A reunion disc, Cosmic Peekaboo (Marina) appeared in 2001.

Their obscurity is largely explained by their original choice of label: Project 3, itself a division of Command Records. Label head Enoch Light simply had no clue how to market a young pop-rock group, even a counter-counter-cultural one. (As a bandleader, Light trafficked in such hi-fi-testing extravaganzas as Persuasive Percussion.) The upside: Project 3 gave the Dedricks access to above-union-scale studio players, including trombonist Urbie Green and guitarist Tony Mottola.

Best-ofs on Varese Sarabande and Cherry Red are good overviews of the band’s work. But new editions of Kites Are Fun and Heaven/Earth (Light in the Attic) are the first full-dress reissues of the Free Design’s first two albums, apart from now-unavailable Japanese bootlegs. (Further reissues will appear later this year, along with an EP of remixes by Cornelius, members of Belle & Sebastian, and other latter-day fans.) The complete albums include some over-familiar outside material ("If I Were A Carpenter," "Michelle"), though the family’s flawless intonation of even the most dissonant chord voicings marks their work as their own. (Unaccompanied, the voices of Sandy and Ellen Dedrick are as inexpressive as a sine-wave generator. And Ellen’s reading of Nat King Cole’s "Nature Boy" — a solo single included among Heaven/Earth’s bonus tracks — is a masterpiece of blunted affect.)

But it’s the Chris Dedrick–penned originals that justify renewed interest in the band. Even the debut’s most relentlessly upbeat numbers (the fluty title track, "My Brother Woody") seem drawn from experience, not muddle-headed reach-for-the-sun sentiment. Dedrick’s best songs reveal a critical — even cynical — intelligence behind the music’s unruffled surface. "Blow your mind, but not completely," advises the uncharacteristically driving "Make the Madness Stop" before pleading for compromise between the straight world and hippiedom’s "grouping, groping nonsense."

The highlight of Heaven/Earth is "2002: A Hit Song," which rends the veil of the pop-music business as few artists dare to. After a proto-vocoder intro ("Hello teenybopper/Hello DJ"), the Dedricks, bitterly precise, lay plans for the chart takeover that never quite came: "Gonna be a hit, hit, hit. . . . Promotion/Will cause a big commotion." You’ll never hear Tim deLaughter and his minions sing a line like this, but the smart money says they’ve heard it — and you know they’ve thought it.

Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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