Recall the mid-’90s: Indie rock, having survived its “lo-fi” juncture, then embraced its Sgt. Pepper period, wherein bands took up an ornate, orchestrated (in every sense) approach to unabashedly pop-oriented songs, with captivating melodies and unabashedly emotional content. Tindersticks, High Llamas, Eric Matthews, and Belle & Sebastian took their cues not from the Stooges, Buzzcocks, or Patti Smith, but rather from Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Burt Bacharach, Nick Drake, and that king of autumnal rumination, Scott Walker. Like the aforementioned iconic Beatles opus (a few historians maintain Pepper ruined rock ‘n’ roll by upping the artiness ante, but that’s another story), some of this orchestral grandeur was, by its very nature, unlikely to reproduce well live (Lambchop excepted). That is, until the Polyphonic Spree came along: Tim DeLaughter (ex-Tripping Daisy) organized a literal rock orchestra of more than two dozen (give or take) on guitars (including pedal steel), keys, winds, strings … even a choral section.
While the Spree’s first album, The Beginning Stages of … , came off as ostentatious and overly precious, Together We’re Heavy finds the group reining in those cutesy excesses somewhat. Structured like a suite, each song eases into the next, aspiring to Brian Wilson’s “Teenage Symphonies to God” ideal. “Section 12 (Hold Me Now)” has a classic, vaguely gospel-tinged chorus, led by DeLaughter’s earnest, elfin, I-was-a-teenage-Bowie vocals. “Section 14 (Two Thousand Places)” has relentlessly cheery wall-of-choral voices that belie the mock utopian (or is that cautiously hopeful?) lyrics. And the closing title track is a soothing, luminous, ascending-to-heaven panorama of sustained tones and repetitive vocal motifs. There’s enough variety and shading to take the edge off the Spree’s more twee aspects, so when the gang sings It’s a beautiful day, it sounds sincere instead of “ironic.”