Polecat reads at times like a cooler Dave Matthews Band and at others like a chiller Michael Franti and Spearhead. The members of the band are extremely talented instrumentalists, which means that they can pingpong back and forth between the sort of acoustic-based instrumental jam that DMB is best known for and the free-wheeling, world-music-informed pop songs that Franti is mostly known for (Ok, it’s really only that “Say Hey (I Love You)” song, but you know what I mean) without missing a beat anywhere. As a result, Into the Wind is a remarkable album.
The instrumental songs are really where Polecat blows it out of the water. Armed with a mindmelting drummer that occasionally takes center stage with complex rhythms, unique sounds, and incredible taste, they’re able to pivot between parts of songs seamlessly. This is an important skill when you’re cranking out songs that mash up Irish folk melodies and reggae (as they do in the cleverly named “Lochs of Dread”). They also know how to meld American folk, traditional country, acoustic pop, and more into their eclectic mix. It wouldn’t do justice to try to explain all the inventive fusions they create: just know that they tear it up in ways that both impress and surprise me, which is a rare achievement.
Elsewhere they show off their vocal melodic ability, in tunes like “In the Cold” and “Fly on the Wall,” where the band wraps itself around Aaron Guest’s melodies. Polecat is proof that you can have catchy pop melodies and not sacrifice an ounce of musicianship–if more people would take up the mantle, music would be a much more interesting place. But it starts with every member of the band being incredible talented at their instruments, and that’s a rare thing. (If everyone were as talented as Chris Thile, we could all be the Punch Brothers, for example.) All that to say, you’ll be singing along while also cocking your head to try to hear the guitar, drum, and fiddle parts that make the songs so interesting.
Polecat’s Into the Wind has fun songs all around, whether they’re instrumental or singalong. If you’re into an album that both shows off instrumental prowess and makes you smile, you should check this one out ASAP.
1. “Russian Roulette” – Sons of London. Well, damn. Right when I thought Deep Elm was out of the game for post-Blink-182 emo-punk-pop, they go and drop this on us. This is one of the most memorable, can’t-stop-listening pop-punk tunes I’ve heard in a long, long time.
2. “Solitude” – Alpenglow. The good people of Alpenglow seem like the sort of good-natured, thoughtful, interesting people who I’d like to get a beer with and talk about water rights politics. I think they’d most likely have an interesting stance, tell me an anecdote or two, and leave me feeling better off in my intellectual life. I think I mean that this song is smart and fun in equal parts, but that’s reductive and makes it look like I didn’t try (although I think Alpenglow would probably be cool with either description, because when you know yourself, you care less about what others are thinking about it.)
3. “Roll It” – Nap Eyes. Nap Eyes has my vote for breakout band of the year–their loping, engaging indie-rock tips its hat to all the coolest references without feeling derivative. “Roll It” just sounds so immediate and fresh that it’s hard to imagine people won’t jump on this train.
4. “Walking In My Sleep” – Kris Orlowski. Orlowski takes another step farther from his folk roots and closer to an indie-rock home with the debut single from his upcoming record Often in the Pause. Crunchy guitar noise, headbobbing rhythms, and his unchanged ability to write/deliver a compelling vocal melody power this tune that seems always ready to burst but never quite explodes, giving a nice tension.
5. “The Uninvited Guest” – Gladiola. If there’s a Weakerthans-sized hole in your heart, Gladiola is here to fill it with tight power-pop melodies, tight lyrics and an overall sense of weary-yet-determined urban knowledge.
6. “In This Lifetime” – Scary Little Friends. Big, punchy power-pop with a bit of glam creeping in around the edges of the vocals.
7. “Lava” – Pleasant Grove. The distillation of an expansive divorce record that took a decade to complete, “Lava” combines the tough guitar exterior and gentle melodic interior that comprise the tensions of The Heart Contortionists’ early -to-mid ’00s indie-rock. Death Cab for Cutie and Grandaddy fans will find much to love here.
8. “Butterflies” – Wyland. Do you miss The Joshua Tree? Fear no more: Wyland’s got your back with this arena-filling, stadium-rocking anthem.
9. “Come Down” – Water District. Remember that weird, brief moment where Silversun Pickups made grunge into a cool indie-rock thing? Water District remembers, creating their own pensive, emotive brand of grunge-inspired indie-alt-rock.
10. “From Far Away” – SayReal. This infectious, smile-inducing tune will thrill those who like good pop songs and those wished that Michael Franti and Spearhead sounded more like their one unusual pop hit all the time.
11. “Start Right Here” – Jennifer O’Connor. O’Connor takes the basic elements of modern indie-pop songwriting (jangly guitars, plain vocal style, catchy melodies, full-but-not-noisy drums) and turns out gold. I don’t know how that works, but it does.
12. “Guns” – Andy Metz. Punchy, rhythmic piano-pop verses open up into a smooth, memorable chorus, complete with timely political commentary on gun control.
I didn’t get as much swag this year, which was disappointing. (I think it probably had to do with the huge buzz that Interactive commanded, which drew some free free free away from the music portion.) However, I do still have some highlights from the stuff I emerged with.
Best Free Album: Separate Tongues by Defining Times. This release blew my mind with its excellent art-rock. The control that the band exercises when deciding between gentle, minimalist composition and towering rock moves was striking. They can do beautiful and powerful with equal success, which is a rare distinction. “Swan Dive” is an impressive earworm of a tune, not relenting its hold on my ears for several days. Fans of Sigur Ros will find much to love in Defining Times.
Best EP: In the Dead of Summer by Desi Roses. Half of Desi and Cody, one of the best bands I saw, continued impressing me with a six-song set of folk/country/Western swing. Desirae Roses’ vocals are impressive in their ability to convey emotion, and the tunes sway with an easy confidence that make me want to press repeat. They’re going on a tour of the west this next two weeks; if you’re out there, you should check them out.
Most Surprising Music: Young Blood Rising by The Del Toros. After seeing an absolutely powerhouse rock performance by this quartet, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that their album finds a neat analogue in Needtobreathe. Both bands can really rock when they want to, but they fill out that skill with pop-rock, acoustic pop, and even some southern rock chops. This creates a varied listening experience that propelled me through the 13-song album. The nearly 7-minute opener “Kick Drum Blues” was especially gripping.
Best Song I Found Buried in a Compilation Album: “Hold Ya” by JKL, on 2012 Indie Music Channel Awards Edition. The joyful sound of it reminded me a great deal of Michael Franti and Spearhead’s “Say Hey (I Love You),” and that’s always a good thing.
Best Flyer I Was Handed:
Their music is pretty awesome too: the opening track of their latest album is a version of the theme from Zelda: Link to the Past‘s Dark World theme. BOSS.
Honorable Mention: O Conqueror‘s slick cardstock flyer got me to their webpage, where their moody, acoustic-led indie rock impressed me.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.