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The Haul: Polvo's In Prism, Mission of Burma's Innermost, J Dilla's Donuts

117. Polvo – In Prism 2LP – Merge, 2009 – $24

Polvo's In Prism

In Prism was by far my most anticipated album of 2009. It was a big enough surprise that Polvo played reunion shows last year, but when they unveiled a few new songs along with greatly revamped classics, I was stunned. I became hopeful that they’d record a new album, which soon enough became reality. By the time that “Beggar’s Bowl” appeared as an advance mp3, I was practically frothing at the mouth. Response to “Beggar’s Bowl” was a bit mixed—the general response was that it was a good song, but it didn’t feel Polvo enough—but I make no qualms about my affection. It’s a stomping, metallic update of their old sound. When I saw Polvo at Brooklyn Bowl in July, I didn't think I could wait much longer for In Prism, yet it would be a few more weeks for the full album to leak and until September 8 for the vinyl. It’s now January, which should be enough time for me to process In Prism.

I won’t make any bones about it: I love In Prism. Is it the best Polvo album? Probably not. Does it sound exactly like vintage Polvo? Not really. Is it far, far better than Shapes? Yes! The last question was the softball I’d lobbed to the album when I first heard it—be better than Shapes, come on, you can do it—but that’s selling In Prism wildly short. They’re simply not going to be the same band they were twelve years ago, which is entirely understandable given their musical experiences since then, the group’s new drummer, and their own ideas about not merely rehashing the past. The biggest difference between In Prism and vintage Polvo is the approach to their guitars. The queasy mid-fi chimes and swoops of Today’s Active Lifestyles and Exploded Drawing had been polished up a bit for Shapes, but the change is far more noticeable now. Guitarist Dave Brylawski even admits to playing in standard tunings on In Prism, which is shocking considering the bonkers alternate tunings they used for those earlier albums. The two big results of this change are 1. a diminished emphasis on those wonky guitar licks as foundations for their songs 2. a higher level of control for song structures and layering. It’s a give and take, but if these developments are the manifestation of the dreaded “maturity,” Polvo has aged marvelously.

The second biggest difference between In Prism and older Polvo albums is the split between Ash Bowie songs and Dave Brylawski songs. By This Eclipse and Shapes, Brylawski’s classic rock influences were readily apparent in his songs, but since Polvo’s original demise, Brylawski’s been keeping busy, most recently as the frontman for Black Taj. That band’s 2008 release Beyonder felt a lot like Brylawski’s later Polvo songs, with an occasional swagger added from being the primary frontman. I expected his songs on In Prism to be close to Black Taj songs, perhaps even repurposed riffs, but that’s not entirely the case. They don’t feel disconnected from the rest of the album, but they do maintain their own separate flavor. “D.C. Trails” ambles along like some of the mellower songs on Fugazi’s The Argument before concluding with some impressive guitar pyrotechnics. “City Birds” has a touch of a classic Polvo riff in its wandering, warbling lead guitar, which flirts with the vocal melody. “Dream Residue/Work” is the most sonically interesting of Brylawski’s songs, starting with an overdub-heavy introduction before hitting a push and pull between driving vocal melodies and moody guitar passages. With more energy, these songs would be highlights of the album, but as is, Brylawski’s laid-back vocal performance relegates these songs to solid album tracks.

Whereas Brylawski’s kept busy with Idyll Swords and Black Taj, Ash Bowie’s songwriting output has been minimal since Polvo’s initial split. His 2000 solo debut, Libraness’s Yesterday and Tomorrow’s Shells, was a cleaning-out-his-closet collection of sketches and demos, which was nice for obsessives but not particularly memorable. He’s spent time as a bassist for the BQs and a touring guitarist for the Fan Modine, but neither of those low-profile gigs even matches his previous stint as Helium’s bassist. This period of compositional silence (he’s supposedly close to finishing two Libraness albums, but I’ll believe that when I hear them) could’ve resulted in a rusty comeback, but Bowie’s five songs on In Prism are all exceptional, like he’d cashed in twelve years of inspiration to prove that he’s still got it. “Right the Relation” is the closest to classic Polvo, starting with a bent-note riff that leads into new drummer Brian Quast’s confident, muscular beat. It’s loaded with stops and starts, left-turn riff changes, nimble bass lines from Steve Popson, and a charged Bowie vocal performance. “I killed my creation / To right the relation” could easily apply to the reunion itself, and after that opening salvo, consider the relation righted.

Three more points about the previously discussed “Beggar’s Bowl”: First, even if Popson and Quast bit the thump-thump-thump bassline and drum breaks from Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” it's a smart theft. Second, the lyrics and vocals update earlier Polvo dream narratives like “Fast Canoe” and “When Will You Die for the Last Time in My Dreams,” which was always my favorite style of Ash Bowie lyrics. Third, the dramatic build-up is still enthralling, and the seamless transition back to the main riff is impressive. Whether “Beggar’s Bowl” sounds like classic Polvo is irrelevant; if this song is the start of the next chapter, I can’t wait to read more.

“The Pedlar” is Bowie’s pop song on In Prism. It somehow turns a jittery guitar noodle into a workable lead, then rewards your patience with an atypically flowing chorus melody and layered synth flourishes in its outro. “The Pedlar” splits the difference between new Polvo and the catchier parts of Magic City-era Helium (dragons not included). I’m surprised it wasn’t released as a single, but it’s not 1994 anymore, so indie rock seven-inches aren’t compulsory.

As great as those three songs are, Bowie’s finest achievements on In Prism are its two longest songs, “Lucia” and “A Link in the Chain.” The former begins with a mournful, reserved introduction, with Bowie’s quivering voice reflecting on “The color of leaves on October trees” before a dramatic crash of guitar. For most bands, this shift from quiet to loud would be enough to carry the song, but at the 2:25 mark, “Lucia” changes course completely, pulling in dueling guitar leads, an enthusiastic Bowie vocal (“New moon / Shadows the sky / Open your eyes and tell them goodbye”) before hinting at the reticent chorus of “Lucia / I thought you were gone.” Midway through, the song splits the difference, building back up with hand percussion, cello, and Bowie’s ghostly titular evocation. Those knotty guitars keep pace, leading the song back to its original charging tempo. It’s a constant tug of war between these elements, but it never feels out of control. Unlike the aforementioned “When Will You Die” from Exploded Drawing, which rambled on far too long for my liking, “Lucia” earns every second of its 8:15 runtime. It’s not quite as long as the album closer, “A Link in the Chain,” which weighs in at 8:47, a ponderous exploration of Polvo’s new motifs. There’s Brylawski’s mid-tempo fetish, which Bowie anoits with restrained emotion on “Now with a gentle word / You send a chariot to send me home,” the woozy sonic burst of “Dream Residue/Work,” the emotional range of “Lucia,” and the layered guitars of “Beggar’s Bowl.” It’s essentially 1970s progressive rock in range and structure, but unlike the classic rock appropriations on Shapes, it always feels natural. The tides of guitar that conclude the song are as majestic as anything Polvo’s done before.

Comparing Polvo’s reformation to those of Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. is surprisingly favorable for Polvo. Mission of Burma’s comeback has been remarkably rewarding (see below), equaling the energy and passion of their earlier work if not quite the same level of inspiration, although The Obliterati by no means lacks inspiration. Dinosaur Jr.’s comeback has been universally acclaimed and I certainly enjoyed Beyond, but I felt diminishing returns on Farm for the very reason people have praised it. Dinosaur Jr. is too comfortable playing what they think a classic Dinosaur Jr. song should sound like, even if the band dynamics nowadays are 180 degrees different from that classic era. Isn’t there an inherent laziness in choosing not to progress and instead giving listeners exactly what they expect? Polvo’s reunion shows demonstrated a welcome unwillingness to cede to those expectations, choosing to tear older songs apart and build them up anew, and In Prism features a similar view of the past. There are ties to their past sound—“Right the Relation,” especially—but most of the record takes new directions, new approaches, some of which you may very well not like as much as Exploded Drawing. If the crowning achievement of the new Dinosaur Jr. albums is that they sound like their vintage SST albums, doesn’t that imply that you still prefer You’re Living All Over Me and Bug? I do. Even with Mission of Burma, my fondness for The Obliterati never threatens to surpass my appreciation of Signals, Calls, and Marches or Vs. Even though I answered it in negative, my earlier question about whether In Prism is the best Polvo record still matters, since I had to debate it. In Prism might not equal Today’s Active Lifestyles or Cor Crane Secret, but five months in, I prefer it to Exploded Drawing, which is still quite an achievement. Who knows how these albums will rank in another twelve years.

118. Mission of Burma – “Innermost” b/w “… And Here It Comes” 7” – Matador, 2009 – $6

Mission of Burma's Innermost b/w And Here It Comes single

I had to double-check Matador’s web site to be sure that this double A-side single wasn’t an advanced shot from Burma’s upcoming The Speed The Sound The Light LP, since Burma did that series of one-sided twelve-inch records in advance of The Obliterati without including any new material. Sure enough, “Innermost” and “…And Here It Comes” will not appear on the album.

I do take issue with calling it a double A-side, however, since “…And Here It Comes” has all of the direction, melody, and momentum on this single. The chorus is as good as anything on The Obliterati, which seriously whets my appetite for the new album. “Innermost” feels downright wonky in comparison, pushed forward by a big bass sound and an off-tempo. Maybe it’ll grow on me, but for now I’ll keep the single on “…And Here It Comes.”

119. J Dilla – Donuts 2LP – Stones Throw, 2006 – $15

J Dilla's Donuts

I went to Newbury Comics hoping that another big recent release—Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt II—would be pressed on vinyl and available for purchase, but that didn’t happen (and to my knowledge, still hasn’t). It did get me flipping through the hip-hop vinyl, in which I found J Dilla’s Donuts. I’d recently skimmed it and felt interested enough to merit the purchase, so I went with an increasingly rare impulse buy of a new LP.

If I paid more attention to hip-hop, I would’ve known about J Dilla (Jay Dee) years ago, since he was quite busy in the mid 1990s producing tracks for artists like the Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest. Instead, I only heard about his solo albums after the fact. J Dilla died of the blood disease TTP in 2006 at the age of 32, just three days after the release of Donuts. It’s the sort of life story that could cloud my judgment of an artist’s work, but Donuts would be surprisingly affecting even without its tragic context.

Donuts’ closest aesthetic match in my collection is DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, another instrumental hip-hop album, but J Dilla takes an entirely different approach to sonics and song structures. Vocals and samples are chopped up and looped, creating a swirl of syllables that eliminates any need for an MC. Soul samples dominate the underbelly, but almost every song has some ingenious touch that turns my ear. The most arresting aspect of Donuts is its architecture. At 45 minutes and 31 songs, song ideas never overstay their welcome and frequently leave me wanting more. Yet it’s how these pieces fit together that truly impresses. It reminds me of Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes in how most tracks make far more sense within the context of the whole, how tracks reflect upon each other, how a switch in tone or tempo makes one song sound that much better. One comment on Stylus’s review of Donuts mentioned how the reviewer failed to mention a single song title, but that makes complete sense to me. Directing a listener to sample one song in the middle of the album defeats the purpose.

31 short songs without structural doubling or tripling is a veritable pupu platter of production treatments, so it’s no surprise that most tracks from Donuts have been utilized by MCs on their albums and mix tapes. Yet right now, I’m not itching to hear the rapped-over versions. No slight to any MC choosing one of these beats—good taste, at least—but being able to hear these songs once and figure out more of the overall puzzle is a more enticing proposition.