Saturday, April 28, 2007

Polvo: Calculate the Irony with Someone You Can Trust

Few people want to admit it, but indie rock makes fairly consistent, if half-assed, claims to high art. It usually comes in the form of arcane allusion ( I think of the time I saw Pavement in Asheville, NC at the start of the tour to support Wowie Zowie when Stephen Malkmus dedicated portions of the show to Josef Albers, Cy Twombly and other artists associated with the nearby site of Black Mountain College), or possibly in the status of the visual art that serves as album design (Raymond Pettibon, Devendra Banhart, Daniel Johnston, Kyle Field and others all have serious artworld gallery representation), and occasionally a lyricist or songwriter will have genuine MFA-certified fiction or poetry-writing chops (dudes from the Decembrists and Silver Jews come to mind), and there are plenty of indie rock musicians who have honest-to-goodness conservatory backgrounds, straight-up legit Western music skills – theory, orchestration, all that. And I guess one would also have to mention the cross-genre musical boot-strapping that some indie/fringe/college/alternative rock acts have gotten from the legitimizing attention of other musicians (usually classical and jazz players), like when people like Christopher Reilly or Brad Maldhau play tunes by Radiohead, or Nick Drake or that dude who plays hard-bop Pavement. And, sure, the music is supposed to be the thing, but what indie acts will be viewed as ground-breaking, forward-thinking strictly for their music?
I first heard Polvo because they were on one of Merge’s early split (?) 7 inch with some friends from Asheville, NC, the wonderful short-lived but wide-mouthed band Pure. Or maybe it was just that they were label mates. Can’t really remember. Anyway, I saw Polvo early on at the legendary Milestone club in Charlotte (I should add, incidentally, that Lefty played in a band that opened for Polvo once). There was a lot of wonderful detuned guitar. That was the biggest selling point. The interplay between the two guitarists was so unorthodox, it was like some mix of weird ethnic folk music – part koto, part vina, part balalaika – and inscrutable art composition, all somehow crammed into something loosely resembling a rock song form, or at least the drums and bass behind it all created that illusion. On top of all that, there’s the sonic equivalent of Dali’s melting clocks: everything all extruded and misshapen as if heard through a funhouse mirror. I know they get lumped in with Sonic Youth, who I have little use for. But this is more genuinely messed up than that. I love the way the glassy, tinkly high notes can dive-bomb into wobbly ultra-low bent strings, third chakra music, whack lopsided chinoiserie. The decoy raga intros. One of the other fantastic things about Polvo is that, being from Chapel Hill, they were serious college basketball and sports fans, which served as a powerful of-the-people antidote to the imposing clouds of off-putting hipster coolness that surrounded the band. The main dude was sort of a Russian scholar and amateur ethnomusicologist, I think he went on to play some with Helium and/or with the woman in that group. The other guy was like one of those Greek guys I went to junior high school with – all into the NCAA tournament. Very North Carolina.
I played in a band for a while. And we were once recording in Hillsboro for a stretch and we somehow arranged to make a pilgrimage to the Polvo house in Chapel Hill. My friends and I mostly sat on a porch, quietly in awe of what these guys were doing. I’m told that "polvo" means "powder" or "dust" in Spanish, but that, maybe in Argentina, maybe, it’s also slang either for orgasm or semen. The Argies have good slang, I’ll tell you that.
When I hear Polvo it drives home the fact that most bands may be operating with the idea that they’re doing something ground-breaking, but few ever come close. And rarely does a band pull off such a mix of being both deeply strange and powerfully tuneful. I love how they warned their listeners that they "just got a sitar, so be prepared." Although Polvo may be viewed as symptomatic of the whole ‘90s complex of bad-faith emotional/spiritual realities, the band diagnosed the era’s shortcomings as poignantly as anyone, and before Dave Eggers. A line from "Every Holy Shroud" - "Celebrate the new dark age with us, calculate the irony with someone you can trust."

"Lazy Comet" - Polvo (from Today’s Active Lifestyles)

"Every Holy Shroud" - Polvo (from Celebrate the New Dark Age e.p.)

"Downtown Dedication" - Polvo (from Shapes)


Lefty said...

OMG! That's it, you've opened the vein now. We're officially entering our 1990s blowback phase. Let it bleed.


* Opened for Polvo in the basement of Ashevegas in 1994. I lent Ashe Bowie my distortion pedal.

* Ashe was in indeed in Helium when I saw them in 1995.

* Next up: Sugarsmack!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Polvo! How I miss them. Their name means "dust." Is the chinoiserie in the sound or words?