Monday, September 24, 2007


The more I learn about the extremely potent time and place in music history that was the late seventies/early eighties in New York City, the more I wish I had been born just a few years earlier. Without being overly romantic about it, there was an amazing density of ideas and influences colliding in the post punk and new wave movements there (among other equally rich genres) and I wish I'd been able to experience it when it was happening. These days many of those ideas and influences are enjoying new resonance, bringing new attention to some artists who didn't even get that much attention back then.

Of the new wave 'art rock' bands in the New York school, Talking Heads are the ones who made it, achieving a level of success no one might have expected for a band that unorthodox. But they didn't work in a vacuum, and Polyrock is a great example of a band who might have gone just as great a distance on the same course, but didn't for one reason or another. 'Romantic me', the first track from their eponymous debut, surely holds its own.

After punk had done its best to obliterate all the ornaments of rock and roll, post punk bands tended to be conscientious in the way they reincorporated those ornaments, and there were quite a few approaches to doing so. For some, it was an intellectual process, and many of these musicians found themselves grouped in the descriptive but nebulous category of 'art rock'. That might be convenient, but it doesn't do justice to the richness of the explorations these musicians made.

Before he formed Polyrock, Billy Robertson had worked with John Cale, and was interested in the way structuralism could inform pop music. For Polyrock, Robertson enlisted the production services of Philip Glass. The process of approaching classical music through its framework had started much earlier, and some of these classical musicians were very interested in rock music, too. Glass felt an affinity to artists who were approaching rock music the way he had been treating classical music.

'Romantic me' shows quite a bit of Glass's influence and/or involvement. Despite the fact that it is based on a two chord progression, it hardly reminds one of a two chord punk song. It employs an organ sound similar to that used frequently in Glass's own works at the time. The traditional rock instruments are present, but they are used as ensemble pieces, with few traces of personal expression. If the track were an instrumental, it could function the same way many Glass tracks have, as a score for modern dance or for an avant garde motion picture.

While the vocal for 'Romantic me' works in striking contrast to the arrangement, it is quite fitting to the art rock manner. Robertson sings in a yelping, affected style similar to David Byrne or Mark Mothersbaugh, and he works up a minimal lyrical string that loops back on itself with variations. Meaning is not as important as form. 'Romantic me' in the first chorus becomes 'romantic dreams' in the second, and 'romantic schemes' in the third, and the two-line verses are there purely to set up those phrases. Symbolist phrases like 'big big clock' and 'swim big fish', chosen specifically for their meter, add to the sense that the lyrics were generated more than they were written, in the way Merce Cunningham generated his dances, or they way some color field painters generated their pieces.

Ultimately, pop music can think all it wants to, but it only succeeds if it affects the listener viscerally, and Polyrock didn't just make good pop music, they made good dance music. 'Romantic me' fits well in a dance floor set with Altered Images, China Crisis and Blancmange. Polyrock's catalog has recently been issued for the first time on compact disc; hopefully more people will take the opportunity to enjoy them.

[At the time of this posting, Polyrock do not have an official website.]