Part of a 10-part series. To see other essays in this series, click here.
Dinosaur Jr has proven that a great band that broke up in the 90s could come back and be as great as ever. Polvo has proven that a great band that broke up in the 90s could come back and be even better than they were in their heyday.
Polvo were true pioneers, taking Sonic Youth’s noise rock template, making it a little more booty-shakin’ for kids that didn’t really like to shake their booties, and adding some classic-rock and Eastern flair to create perhaps the most remarkable dual-guitar setup of the 90s. Convening in 1990, the band proceeded to produce four classic indie rock albums in Cor-Crane Secret, Celebrate the New Dark Age, Today’s Active Lifestyles and Exploded Drawing.
Polvo’s final album of the 90s, the more impressionistic Shapes, was less well-received, and after a final tour with a fill-in drummer, the band broke up in 1998, more or less amicably, presumably never to be seen again. The members moved to various places around the country. With the exception of guitarist/vocalist Ash Bowie’s solo Libraness project, which produced one spotty LP, and the criminally under-recognized Black Taj, which put out two satisfying LPs featuring guitarist/vocalist Dave Brylawski and bassist Steve Popson, it wasn’t as if these guys were working as full-time musicians on their own. As far as I know, they all held day jobs… and still do.
Their comeback five years ago came out of nowhere, and excited a lot of people. But 2008 was a whole lot different than 1998. Music had changed drastically. While other bands from their era might have gotten back together to cash in on their reputations and their popular (for indie rock) songs, Polvo didn’t seem the slightest bit interested in being a nostalgia band. Their return statement, 2009’s In Prism, was a revelation, with some critics calling it their best work yet. I’d say it’s a worthy addition to the canon, up there with their best work.
But Polvo’s best work, amazingly, was still in them. Their 2013 LP, Siberia, is simply great, completely satisfying, exciting and oddly soothing from beginning to end.
In Prism re-established the Polvo aesthetic after a decade-long layoff. Siberia perfects it. Listen for yourself.
If Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood engage in a delicate dual-guitar attack they call weaving, Bowie and Brylawski engage in what could be described as “tentacle-ing.” Their guitars forever bend and slink and wrap themselves around each other. The resulting sound is at once dense, delicate, labyrinthine, crystalline and, all told, rather unique. These guys have their sonic fingerprints all over each other. A unified, four-handed front of mangled but beautiful guitar.
Bowie generally has the weirder, more avant-garde approach, while Brylawski produces a melange of more traditional “rock” guitar parts, both sounding as if they’re being played by someone who has spent a lot of time in Asia. The contrast extends to their personalities. Bowie is the quiet, artsy one; you’re not quite sure if he’s aloof, snobby or shy. Brylawski is more the everyman, sports-loving jokester; I remember me with my Kurt Cobain hair and thrift-store T-shirt getting into a mock argument about the Sixers’ bust of a 1994 first-round pick, Clemson’s Sharone Wright, with Brylawski, who was wearing a shiny Charlotte Hornets jacket. Ah, the 90s.
On Siberia, Bowie and Brylawski sing four songs apiece, with Bowie’s songs as usual provoking the listener through crazy twists and turns, and Brylawski’s serving as demented classic rock that’s a perfect elixir for worn-down Gen Xers.
What makes Polvo so special, though, is how well the rhythm section interacts with the guitarists. Popson is one of my favorite bassists ever, providing a brawny counterpoint to the floating guitars, while new drummer Brian Quast resembles original drummer Eddie Watkins in his ability to expertly swing, sway and drive the songs along their rollicking road.
Polvo still isn’t a “working” band in the sense that they have not toured, nor do they seem to have any plans to tour, behind Siberia. That’s fine, they’ve earned it. But I’d love it if they put their kids and jobs aside again for a bit to issue yet another profound statement in 2017.