|The Polyphonic Spree - Together We're Happy|
|Music Disc Reviews DVD-Audio|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Tuesday, 14 September 2004|
I learned in music school that if you want to have any chance of making a lot of money in the music biz performing in a band, keep the number of members in the group small so you don’t have to divide up the royalty checks too many ways. The Polyphonic Spree, a band consisting of over 20 members, led by Tripping Daisies frontman Tim DeLaughter, is going to have to do some serious math to divvy up the money should their latest album Together We’re Heavy recoup its expenses and become a financial success. The fine folks at DTS felt the album was such a success creatively that they approached the band and their labels Hollywood and Good Records to do a DVD-Audio version of the disc.
I have long maintained that art rock and R&B are the two best music genres for DVD-Audio and other surround audio formats. It just so happens that despite a zillion different designations by critics and fans, I would ultimately label the Spree as art rock. The sound of The Polyphonic Spree is a huge amalgamation of The Beatles, The Partridge Family, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and The Beach Boys. Symphonic hippie art rock is what the Spree is kicking. Their instruments run the gamut from traditional guitar/bass/drums to French horns, trombones, a Theremin and a ten-piece choir. Needless to say, if there was ever a band that was meant to be portrayed in surround sound, The Polyphonic Spree is it. I have heard so many four-piece rock bands’ music remixed into surround and it often becomes an ugly mess of instruments competing for space in the rears. It sometimes sounds unnatural, as guitar solos pop out from unexpected places and vocal swirl around the room. The Polyphonic Spree is so unconventional that your expectations of a regular rock band are blown of the water from the moment you see them in their multi-colored robes on the album’s cover. I was expecting the unexpected, so hearing the music coming at me from all sides from this 20-plus-piece band was a concept I could easily accept.
Although the disc cover states there are three mixes on the disc, in reality there were only two on the version I have. A PCM stereo version (that is 48k/24-bit) is provided for listening to the disc on a two-channel system and those of you who have a DTS encoder in their theater system can really enjoy the spree in 5.1 surround via the DTS DVD mix (also 48k/24-bit). Missing from the disc but listed on the album’s liner notes is the 5.1 DVD-Audio mix. This may have been simply a flaw in my review copy, but for the purpose of this review, I will refer to the DTS 5.1 DVD-Video mix.
Picking up from their first album, the track listing on Together We’re Heavy begins with “Section 11 (A Long Day Continues/We Sound Amazed)” and the sound of the 10-piece choir simply swallows you. A heavenly harp paves the way for a tubey-sounding guitar riff. The harps spread across the front and back of the soundstage, while the anchor of the song comes from a piano part with bass accents. While I expected the surround mix to be wild and daring, the moves made by mixer Frank Filipetti were subtle and tasteful. The sound of the Spree is already so enveloping that he didn’t need to use lots of tricky pans and fades.
On the outro for “Hold Me Now,” you can hear the influence of the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye,” as the vocal melody and trumpet parts are quite similar to this Lennon/McCartney classic. Nothing I heard on Together We’re Heavy is ever directly ripped off from any of the band’s long list of influences, but surely you can’t help but think of The Beatles when you hear this tune.
Many of the songs on Together We’re Heavy seem to begin with extended instrumental sections that sound more like the endings of songs than beginnings. I have never heard this style of songwriting before and it frequently had me looking at the track listing on my DVD-Player to see if I was at the beginning of one song or at the end of the previous one.
My favorite songs on Together We’re Heavy are the epic tracks “Suitcase Calling” and “When the Fool Becomes a King.” They bring to mind the slower, softer moments of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The clever use of the rears for ambient sound effects really draws you into the music.
The weakest aspect of the band for me has to be Tim DeLaughter’s voice. Technically he hits all the right notes, but his style is a little bland in terms of delivery and dynamics. I know this band is his baby, but to hear these same songs sung by someone with perhaps a raspy British voice, ala early Genesis-era Peter Gabriel or Roger Waters, would take this record from the status of being an interesting album that you might want to check out of you like experimental music to the level of essential listening for art rock fans everywhere. Imagine the opening track sung by Coldplay’s Chris Martin and you might have one of the best pop songs of the year. I can’t think of the last “concept” album I have heard in the past 10 years; Together We’re Heavy is the closest thing to it I can recall. The message and concept is love and peace and other hippie things that you’d expect to hear from a bunch of musicians who look like Buddhist monks in rainbow colored robes but I just feel the record slightly misses the mark on the vocal end.
The mix breakdown is a very enlightening special feature that will help you learn to listen to different sections of songs and hear how they are layered in the studio to make the final mix. Mixing music is like painting with sound. With surround sound, it’s like an artist has moved from black and white to having all of the colors of the rainbow, demonstrating how simply adding and removing instruments evoke different feelings. Using the song “Hold Me Now,” we get to step inside the recording studio and hear how the wall of sound that defines the Polyphonic Spree is created. The syrupy sweet chorus to "Hold Me Now" could be the soundtrack to a new Walt Disney anamatronic ride, ala It’s a Small World, and also features the same Beatles influence in the trumpet line. I’d venture to guess the horn players in the Spree have listened to some Fab Four albums.
Other bonus features on the disc include two versions of videos for the song “Light & Day.” These videos provide a quick education on what this band is about. On the disc, artsy photos of the group wearing their robes and wandering the desert makes me think they would be a perfect band to walk around the virtual city streets of the Burning Man Festival. This is art for the sake of art, money and critics be damned.