October 14, 2009: Polvo, In Prism

2009 feels like the year that I finally got old. It’s been at least five years in coming, but barely anything from the recent crop of Pitchblogosphere-pimped bands/trends is making any kind of lasting impression (except for “glo-fi” which is such a great neologism that I have to give it respect). My listening habits of late have sharply regressed to my salad days in college radio. What stuff have I been the most excited about over the past couple of months? Among other things, a reunion album from a not-very-well-known (even in indie circles) band that broke up eleven years ago. Look, I could shrug it off when Mission of Burma started making music again, because I was too young to know about them the first time around, and then it was ok that the Pixies reunited since I had never got to see them play live. But now Pavement is reuniting for shows and Terror Twilight just turned ten years old— what’s next, a Jawbox reunion? (Answer: apparently, yes.) Is there an aging-indie-rocker version of the state-fair circuit that I can go hang at?

Look. Polvo were one of the first “indie” bands I discovered in the early 90s, when I was in high school in Redding, California and there were exactly three ways to learn about good music: 1) smart friends giving me cassette dubs of stuff like Pretty Hate Machine and No Pocky For Kitty; 2) 120 Minutes on MTV (Sunday nights midnight to 2 am! Dave Kendall! Way too many shitty English haircut bands!); and 3) hanging out at the bookstore reading through copies of Alternative Press, Ray Gun and Spin and secretly making notes of stuff that sounded interesting and then having to mail-order it because no record store within a hundred miles carried it. (Holy shit I can’t believe how this sounds so Dark Ages uphill-in-the-snow-both-ways. Back then I had just enough spare cash to buy maybe two CDs a month at the Camelot Music in the mall. This morning? Downloaded five albums while sitting on the toilet. It’s the goddamn future, and to quote Louis C.K., everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.)

So yes, I mail-ordered Today’s Active Lifestyles after reading about it in fucking Ray Gun magazine in 1993, and it instantly blew out the back of my head. I had never heard anything like it before (or since, really). It didn’t sound like pop, or rock, or punk, or world music, or any other genre that I knew of. Even with the most standard rock-band lineup, I could not fit Polvo into any kind of recognizable idiom. It was kind of jammy, but not in the annoying Grateful Dead sort of way; there weren’t solos so much as structured instrumental passages that initially seemed to wander but would snap back into focus just as quickly. It made just enough sense to keep me listening, to try to decipher what they were about. How important is Today’s Active Lifestyles to me? I listened to it the first time I ever took mushrooms. That kind of experience would enshrine any album in one’s own personal Hall of Fame.

Of course, even with nostalgia clouding up my hindsight, I know in my heart that Today’s Active Lifestyles isn’t actually that great of an album. It’s good in places, but as is the case with the entirety of Polvo’s 90s output, there are plenty of dull stretches and failed experiments. Polvo were actually tagged as a “mid-fi” band for a while, which is pretty much the insult that it sounds like: they were kind of rocking the slacker, security-through-obscurity angle that Pavement and Guided By Voices eventually cashed in on, but their recording quality was just a notch better. Which is to say, their albums sounded muddy and mediocre, especially in relation to the genuinely intriguing and off-kilter nature of their music. By the time they broke up in 1998, I had come to think of them as a band that was still clearly talented but never figured out how to focus that talent.

So fast forward to now, and here’s the good news: In Prism is Polvo’s best album, no kidding. Like Mission of Burma and Wire before them, this is the sound of a band doing a reunion right: with a renewed sense of purpose, ripping out jams that are tighter, fiercer, and more confident than anything they did before. And the key thing, I think, is that they needed to go away in order to come back like this. During the interim, guitarist Dave Brylawski and bassist Steve Popson formed Black Taj, in which they brought to the forefront the boogie/psych/classic-rock influences lurking beneath Polvo’s surface. Black Taj’s second album Beyonder was a favorite of mine last year, though now it feels more like a dry run, a blueprint for how Polvo might sound within a more familiar, conventionally “rock”-like milieu. In Prism takes that blueprint and goes all the way with it.

Yes, Polvo rocks now, seriously, in a way they only hinted at before. The hard-hitting new drummer helps, as do the much-improved production values, but most of all, they sound like a band looking to prove that they can connect on a gut level without conceding anything aesthetically. Even Ash Bowie’s vocals, previously buried in the mix to be made as cloaked and anonymous as possible (in typical 90s-indie fashion), now have some emotive heft and personality to them. I have to stop myself from writing at length on every single track here, but I do at least want to point to “Beggar’s Bowl” as the apotheosis of Polvo’s comeback. It’s like every guitar texture they’ve toyed with in their career is in here, but presented anew, and updated for the modern era. It’s the kind of the song that gives me hope for the inevitable 90s revival.