Swept away by the Polyphonic Spree


April 13, 2003



''What a night!'' Tim DeLaughter shouted several times over the course of the Polyphonic Spree's packed show at Metro on Friday. ''What a night!''

Even setting aside the manic frizzy-haired Texan's penchant for gleeful hyperbole, it was hard to disagree.

Fronting 14 musicians and a 7-piece choir--a veritable mini- orchestra--DeLaughter jumped, bounced and cheered his way through a celebratory 90-minute set that imagined the Beach Boys' classic ''Pet Sounds'' crossed with a smattering of '70s ''sunshine pop'' a la the Association, a bit of ''god rock'' in the mold of ''Jesus Christ Superstar,'' and a fair amount of late-era Flaming Lips.

Like Oklahoma City's Lips, the Dallas ensemble pairs an almost absurd musical ambition with a lyrical outlook that is defiantly optimistic.

''Hey now, it's the sun/And it makes me smile!'' DeLaughter and the choir sang in the opening number (reprised again at the end of the night, by which point even the most jaded hipsters at Metro were singing along at the top of their lungs).

But where the Lips rely on digital backing tracks to deliver their orchestral parts, the Polyphonic Spree creates its "ork pop" live, one rolling crescendo after another, making for an undeniably visceral and invigorating experience as the white-robed musicians saw, hammer and pluck away on timpani, tubular bells, Moog synthesizer, digital harpsichord, trumpet, trombone, French horn, flute, violin, cello, guitar, bass, theremin and several other instruments I'm probably forgetting.

Not only was this very likely the first time the stage at Metro ever hosted a harp, the harpist even got a solo showcase at the end of the night.

Launching its first U.S. tour in Chicago after a warm-up gig Thursday at the Empty Bottle, the Polyphonic Spree played nearly all of the upbeat, sing-along anthems from 2002's independently released debut, ''The Beginning Stages of . . .'' as well as several newer and even more elaborate numbers from its recently completed second album.

(Several major labels are now competing to sign the group after its surprising success last year in Europe and the U.K., giving the group the cash for the first time to hit the road in this country, and DeLaughter--formerly the leader of alternative-era also-rans Tripping Daisy--his first shot at demi-stardom.)

It's hard to write about individual songs because none of the tunes on the album are titled. In any event, they tended to run together like the music at a gospel revival, with the effect of forming one long piece of music that ebbed and flowed, built and receded, around chanted refrains about the power of love and the joys of being alive.

From time to time during this set (as well as at earlier performances that I caught in Texas), the cynic in me wondered if the Spree's outlandish good cheer might just be a put-on inspired by an overdose of Wellbutrin and Prozac.

But then the horns and the choir surged forward once more, as they did on the climactic set-ending cover of David Bowie's ''Five Years,'' the majestic opening track from ''Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,'' and I'll be damned if I wasn't swept away anew.

Even in these hopelessly cynical and godless times, music this effervescent can make a believer of anyone. What a night indeed.