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Polvo - In Prism

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Artist: Polvo

Album: In Prism

Label: Merge

Review date: Sep. 2, 2009

I went through the upheaval that many of us do when our obsessions give way to new ones, when that shiny new toy in the corner – the one that pulls its own string and climbs up the walls all by itself, screeching like a psych ward patient who’s just been stabbed with a rusty spike – replaces the bellwethers that propped us up earlier in life. If anything, I drifted away from Polvo, then at the height of their popularity, out of sheer overexposure. I may be embarrassed of some bands onto which I hung up my adolescent troubles, but I never lost my feelings for this band. Rather, they wore me down. When their EP, This Eclipse, came out, I was spending a lot of time at my college radio station. That particular record stayed in the number one slot on our playlists for the entirety of the three months it lived in the new bin. In those months, I would hear the trapezoidal orbit of “Title Track” so many times that I couldn’t take it anymore. When it got pulled from rotation, staffers assumed it was a mistake, and put it back in. Still, it meant something to a lot of us at the time, and even though it took years for the exhaustion to wear off enough for me to pick up on Exploded Drawing, I can find few faults with them, then or now. But it’s those first two albums, and both the double 7” and triple 7”, that made me feel connected to something bigger, and put me where I am today.

Up until the very end (at least up through to Shapes – still hate that one), I never had a problem with Polvo. The twisting dual guitar leads and stoned, awakening elf demeanor, the band that those little gargoyles and figurines featured on the covers of Dinosaur Jr. records might have started, never wore me down or tired me out. 1993’s Today’s Active Lifestyles remains a high point for indie rock (or whatever you wish to call it). Chopped lines of black pepper and curry dashed all over the most wiry of melodic extrapolations; songs that lived off the kind of resin-clogged logic that could singe off your nose hairs and eyebrows; restlessness masked with nervous tics and spring-loaded hooks; concussive intros and bombastic endings. Few records affect me like that one did, and I can still listen from front to back and transport myself to the abstract headspace of the future I’d have mapped out; one which, if I stayed to the paths paved by this music, would surely lead me to whatever it was I was expecting to find.

It’s a surprise, and even somewhat of a shock, to hear Polvo back in form 12 years later, as if Shapes never happened. In Prism is about as fine an album that any band in their position could have made – take that however you may, but it’s coming from a positive place. I’m not entirely sold on the drum-solo-requiring stance of ex-Cherry Valence drummer Brian Quast, here replacing Eddie Watkins (or Brian Walsby) for one reason or another. The first half of the album sounds enough like Polvo for sure, but the presence of a different drummer emphasizes how much each member of this band was bringing to the overall sound in its prime. Opener “Right the Relation” could fit anywhere around their mid-’90s output without much difficulty, but the metallic leads and Damon Che-style fills are a bit of overkill. And while the central riff of “Beggar’s Bowl” possesses that incalculable quality of the band’s finest work, it’s nothing they would have anchored an entire song around in the past. The heaviness doesn’t sound out of place, but it’s a direction they would have dealt with in much more obtuse and rewarding ways in the past. Here, the effect of piling on so much sleeveless heft sounds a bit like a copout.

So while In Prism at least sounds like a Polvo record, it’s not until the second half, starting with the eight-minute opus “Lucia,” where it actually begins to feel like a Polvo record. The ropey prelude runs for long enough to make the eyes go rolling, but eventually the song opens up, the geometries of their songwriting snap back into place, and all it takes is one verse, and the nuances of its delivery – “I thought you were gone” – to awaken every secret adventure this band ever soundtracked in my life, every time I’d come home from some difficulty or disappointment to blast it away with “Thermal Treasure” or “Tilebreaker.” For those eight minutes, intricately developed parts crush down with doom, pound against its walls, careen off cliffs of their own making, break down into drum-circle dreamspace, and back again, ending in the same peaceful uncertainty from which it began. The rest of the record is very good, and often great (similar feelings are dredged up with the lyric “send a chariot to carry me home” in righteous closer “A Link in the Chain”), but if Polvo had reunited only to produce this one song, it would have been enough. May they keep the doors open for long enough to make many more.

By Doug Mosurock

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