The Polyphonic Spree is a 23-member band of hippie hipsters from Texas who dress alike—the first CD, it was white robes; the second colored robes; today, it’s black jumpsuits—and clearly are very, very happy. As someone somewhere said, they’re like “Up With People” for hipsters.

And man, it’s refreshing.

Their new CD, “The Fragile Army” couldn’t be more sonically different than the White Stripes “Icky Thump,” but both are sunny and optimistic and fun and funny. And brilliant. (And I have tickets to see the Spree in July, and the Stripes in September.)

Where the Stripes are all about minimalism and tight arrangements, the Spree operate on an epic scale. It’s hard not to sound enormous when you have flutes, French horns, violins, pianos, drums, bass, and guitars supporting sunny people yelling lyrics like, “It’s like running away with the wind in our face, it’s like flying/And you and I are open wide.”

On their last two CDs, it all got a wee-bit tiresome and was best digested in small pieces. But “The Fragile Army” is a better complete work, with more variety to the themes, both music and lyrical. The first single, the jubilant “Running Away” is one of the sunnier, more traditional tracks. Others, like the title song and “Mental Cabaret,” are somewhat darker. But it’s all pretty wonderful. Go buy it. Now.

Jack and MegAs for the Stripes, “Icky Thump” is definitely a return to the more conventional garage/blues/pop versus the rather weird “Get Behind Me Satan.” There’s more guitar, lots of blistering Jack White soloing, Meg’s drums are amped at mad-loud levels, a truly funny call and response between Jack and Meg playing junk collectors (or something) on “Rag and Bone.”

(To those who criticize the Stripes because of Meg’s simplistic stomp, sheesh, talk about not getting it. They’re all about simplicity. The lyrical themes, the music… it’s all back to basics, off-the-cuff stuff. With a “normal” drummer, it wouldn’t be the same at all… and you’d probably notice Jack’s sloppy playing too.)

There’s a couple of weak tracks on “Icky Thump”—the weird Irish ditties in the middle are just, well, weird in a less good way than the Flamenco-horned Conquest—but it’s another dozen awesome Stripes songs for your $15. Go buy it. Now.

The White Stripes new CD comes out tomorrow, and the first single “Icky Thump,” has grown on me over the last month. And I bought tickets this weekend to see them at the Paramount Theater in September.

I’m pretty sure I have a small man-crush on Jack White, and a real crush on Meg.

The greatest thing about loving three minute pop songs is that you’re constantly discovering (or re-discovering) the best three minute pop song in the world… and these things only last for days/weeks.

My current favorite is “Tiny Spark” by Brendan Benson. If you follow muzak, you may recognize his name from the coverage of The Raconteurs. He and Jack White are apparently buddies, and co-wrote the “Broken Boy Soldiers” CD. (While I didn’t totally dig that record, a few of the songs are fab.) By himself, Benson is a total pop classicist, kind of a Matthew Sweet type without the guitar wonkiness. If I had anything but rudimentary guitar skills, I’d probably create songs that sounded kind of like this.

And here’s a video for “Tiny Spark,” which is from 2002 or so.

When blathering on about my last entry, I stumbled on the video to Elastica’s “Connection,” which also led to me to its video for “Stutter.” And I’m struck at just how freakin’ great this song still sounds. Male impotence never sounded so sexy. It’s two minutes of pure manic pop pleasure.

Cannibal SeaI missed this CD when it was released last year, but I’ve been really digging “Cannibal Sea” by The Essex Green. They actually have origins here in lovely and scenic Burlington, VT (though they currently operate out of Brooklyn), so they’re sorta local. And they don’t sound anything like Phish, so that’s a plus.

They’re actually part of the Elephant 6 collective, if you’re familiar with this; think of a serious debt to guitar pop, folk, and 1960s psychadelia. Some of the E6 bands include Apples in Stereo and Elf Power. (I saw Elf Power open for Elliott Smith a few years ago here in BTV and wasn’t all that impressed.)

The first half of “Cannibal Sea” is better than the second half. The opener, “This Isn’t Farm Life,” is particularly strong. It starts bouncing merrily along, kind of fades out in the middle, and then returns with full strings and a Spector-esque wall of sound.

Marry Me SashaLike The New Pornographers, the best songs are those where the pretty girl takes center stage. Though Sasha Bell isn’t the singer that Neko Case is—but seriously, who is?—it’s impossible for any indie boy not to fall madly in love with her as she belts out the chorus on “Snakes in the Grass.” (Click for a sample.) And “Cardinal Points” sounds like some weird mash-up between Stereolab and Wilco’s first CD, all primitive blips and bloops and background vocals that suddenly morphs into a guitar rave-up by the end.

But the best song, by far, is “Don’t Know Why (You Stay),” (Click me.) in which Christopher Ziter takes the lead vocals and Bell offers up some beautiful harmonizing on the chorus. It’s a glorious pop song, the kind that in some alternative universe would be blaring from every car that drives down the road on a beautiful summer day.

I shoulda known YouTube would have Young Fresh Fellows videos… not that I actually knew any Young Fresh Fellows videos even existed.

Like their cover of “Picture Book” by the Kinks from This One’s For the Ladies. (In the video, everyone plays drums; on the CD sleeve, everyone is pictured with a drum kit and listed as playing “lead guitar.”)

(more…)

fellows1.jpgIn the first of a fully self-indulgent multi-part series on bands that meant a lot to me in my formative years, here’s a look at one of the more obscure awesome ones, The Young Fresh Fellows.

(I probably should’ve started with The Replacements, who are kind of my Beatles/Stones. But I was ripping CDs this fine evening and found my Fellows stash. So the ‘Mats will have to wait, which seems appropriate. And I’d probably have to think more than I want to about how I feel about Don’t Tell a Soul.)

So, “who’s The Young Fresh Fellows?” you say? YFF is a Seattle band led by the inimitable Scott McCaughey. They got their start in the early 80s and have released a dozen or so records in the last 20 years. (more…)

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