Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Polvo- Exploded Drawing

While listening to Polvo for the first time, I began thinking about how most of the music we think of as post-rock is mostly descended from Tortoise and Mogwai and not the accepted Slint or Talk Talk starting points. However, there actually were a lot of bands who closely studied Spiderland, Slint's 1991 masterpiece, and went from there. Bands like June Of 44, The Shipping News, Rodan, and, yes, Polvo picked up on the experimental guitar based rock music of that album. But none of these bands has ever cracked into the mainstream or produced an album that is widely known or critically acclaimed. Why is this??

Well, before I get to that, I want to make an important distinction here. This may seem pointless since genre classifications are by nature fluid and meaningless, but we've got to have something we can use when talking about different styles. So: bands like Polvo fly closer to math rock than post rock. There's a lot of overlap between the two, but bands like those named above usually focus on extended instrumental passages using guitars, unique tunings, and non-traditional time signatures instead of the more overtly impressionistic music of post-rock, which normally has keyboard/electronic elements to it (often borrowing liberally from kraut rock, dub, ambient, and sometimes jazz in the process).

The problem with this--and with post-rock/math metal bands in general--is that none of them have recorded anything as good as Spiderland. This may seem like an unfair level to compare them to, but I would argue that almost all of the Tortoise/Mogwai inspired post-rock bands have matched or bested the best efforts of those two bands. See, the thing about math rock is that because of the frenetic playing and complexity it often comes off like prog rock but much more dissonant and experimental. And lacking memorable tunes. Spiderland is so brilliant and memorable because while Slint really got down into some distorted, angular guitar playing and flat out rocking moments they also wrote some affecting, powerful songs. I think I mentioned this in my review of Spiderland, but watching the band perform it live a few summers ago at the Pitchfork Music Festival, I could look around and see thousands of people who had, like me, memorized every deft movement.

This brings us to Exploded Drawing. It is a good album, indeed, often very good. The songs are perfectly competent and always interesting to listen to, but, well, nothing really sticks with you. It's the same thing I see happening with modern noise/indie/rock/experimental bands with mostly unprintable names like Holy F*ck, F*ck Buttons, HEALTH, et. al.: they have interesting sounds/textures and their songs are flat out cool and/or rocking, but none of it really sticks with you. Billy Corgan once dismissed Pavement by saying something like "no one wakes up humming Pavement songs", which is provably false, but it's the kind of thing I think about when I listen to those bands and Exploded Drawing. I enjoy it, I don't regret the money I spent on it, and I'll probably listen to it a few times a year for the rest of my life. But it'll never be the album I make copies of for people I know; it'll never be the album I put on 'best of' or 'my personal favorite' lists.

This review may seem like an indictment of math rock-leaning post rock in general and Exploded Drawing in particular, but it wasn't my original intention. In all fairness I would qualify this album as above average post-Slint indie rock and the "math rock-leaning post rock" bands mentioned above are all worth checking out for those interested. Assuming you like this kind of stuff, Exploded Drawing is highly recommended. However I caution anyone looking into these bands--Shipping News is the only one I can really vouch for, because I don't have any full lengths by June of 44 or the others--and hoping for some kind of underground, undiscovered masterpiece on the level of a Spiderland. I fear that Exploded Drawing is the sort of thing an over eager record store employee or *ahem* music critic might foist upon you with the best intentions. But there's a line between very good genre excursions and very good, lasting music. Polvo managed to make the former but not the latter. To put it simply, they don't transcend their genre.


jeffstern said...

I'd recommend Today's Active Lifestyles as the better/best Polvo album. I also think that Rodan's album (rusty) is on par with Spiderland, although it arguably more uneven (in tone, not quality) and therefore less cohesive as a full album. I'd also recommend the EP "Under the Veil of Health" by Spatula (Squealer Records) for something similarly mathy but less noise/metal influenced and more drone/eastern influenced.

Comparisons to Spiderland are tough - it's like comparing anything that SY-influenced bands have produced to Daydream Nation.

Anonymous said...


they play the hits in this set

dont say ur boy shawn phase never did nothin for ya :D