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Listening Report: The Polyphonic Spree’s Afflatus

Mark Smotroff falls in love with an album of poignant covers…

I learned a new word in writing this review: “Afflatus.” 

Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “a divine imparting of knowledge or power” but then expands that the word  “…might be described as a breath of fresh aira lesser-known word for inspiration that followed a parallel route.”

This is important when considering The Polyphonic Spree’s most recent album which bears that word as its title. The group no doubt figured out its inspiration and parallel routes to follow in order to keep life going amidst the pandemic when they found they could not tour.  Afflatus is a bittersweet yet joyous celebration of what they do. I just recently discovered Afflatus which was released last year and I’d totally missed it. So I ordered it right away and they sent it out to me super fast, arriving last week. Better late to the party than never!

Given that they had already rehearsed this material — the group was scheduled to play a covers show in 2020 which they cancelled three hours before it was to take place — they decided to just go into the studio to document their hard work. Recorded in one 12 hour session, effectively live without a net, their essence as a band comes through heartfelt and strong on Afflatus

That is no small feat when you consider that the version of The Polyphonic Spree on this album is a small orchestra with 22 persons in it all playing in a studio space. 

Afflatus is a joy to listen to and just the right remedy for these strange times. Featuring covers of songs that the band members love, if you are between 35 and 70 years old, many of these tunes have been part of the fabric of our lives, from Abba (“The Visitor”) and The Rolling Stones (“She’s A Rainbow”) to INXS (“Don’t Change”) and Rush (“The Spirit Of Radio” … more on that in a moment)…

One song in particular has been in the band’s repertoire for a while and in my book The Polyphonic Spree has taken ownership of it much in the way that k.d. lang took the torch for “Crying” from Roy Orbison. The song is none other The Monkees’ “Porpoise Song” written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin (and which first appeared on the soundtrack to the Monkees 1968 counter-culture movie called Head).  

As in their live performances, The Polyphonic Spree do the song incredible justice including a beautiful, semi-psychedelic break down in the middle leading up to the epic closing sequence. As I said before, they have taken ownership of the song and made it their own while still paying homage to the original. I’ve posted their video for it below at the end of this review.

Another song that has been knocking me out is their version of The Bee Gee’s “Run To Me.” Feeling like a cross between Radiohead and The Flaming Lips, this new take on it is gorgeous and decidedly Polyphonic Spree. Frankly, it makes me cry every time I hear it (and that is a good thing, mind you…).

Their take on Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” showcases not only what a difficult song it is to sing but also what a good interpreter lead singer and Polyphonic Spree founder Tim Delaughter is in his ability to deliver a song with such a rich AM radio pop legacy. Again, it is all in the arrangement and the group takes it to some lovely spaces. 

Perhaps most striking for me is the inclusion of a cover of Rush’s “The Spirit Of Radio” which apparently was done in one take!  Now, I admit I am not a big Rush fan but I do respect the group. 

A personal aside: I admit to have suffered bit of musical trauma (if you will) with this regards to this particular song during my freshman year of college. You see, when “The Spirit Of The Radio” came out, the guy living across the hall from me in my dorm used to play this song endlessly as he was trying to figure out how to play the guitar parts on his spiffy red sunburst Les Paul electric guitar! So after a semester of hearing it so much, I got pretty burned out on the song’s signature riff and have had trouble listening to it ever since.   

That said, The Polyphonic Spree in all its 22 member glory take the song up a notch and rock it out in a matter that makes me appreciate it as never before. I like this version a lot and it is a fun way to end the album!

Afflatus is available from the band’s website on really beautiful marbled neon green vinyl (click here) which feels like it is at least 180-grams thick, well centered and surprisingly — happily — quiet. Overall, the album sounds very good and while it is no doubt a modern recording (probably digital) it doesn’t sound harsh or off putting. Its a good rock record that you can turn up loudly. You can also stream and buy a download of the album from their Bandcamp page (click here). Alas, the album is not on Tidal or Qobuz at this point (sorry hi res streamers). 

I can’t wait until it’s safe to go out to concerts again because I really want to see The Polyphonic Spree again. If you’ve never seen them live do go as soon as you can as their shows are a lot of fun. Their albums are great too! Click here for my review of their last one, Yes Its True.  

Until then, Afflatus will definitely do the trick to hold us over.  Thank you, Polyphonic Spree, once again for the great music and for adding a new word to my vocabulary.

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