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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Label spotlight: Polyvinyl Records

Though I'm still in the research-gathering stage for Post, I have planned out some nice coverage of labels that I liked back in the day and still like today. I'm happy to see a number of labels (like No Idea, Jade Tree, Polyvinyl, DeSoto and Second Nature) keep their legitimacy instead of cashing all of their chips for mall emo. Though labels like Epitaph and Vagrant are still criticized for their mall punk releases, at least they put out a wider variety of stuff that isn't strictly tailored for the mall crowd. Under the Epitaph umbrella, we've seen releases as diverse (and really great) as Converge, the Weakerthans and Neko Case in the last few years. With Vagrant, we'll be seeing the new releases from unique acts like the Futureheads, Lemonheads and the Hold Steady in the near future. I hope to cover all of these labels to a decent extent with Post, but as a little taste, I wish to spotlight them here without the constraints of a book format. For starters, today's label is Polyvinyl Records.

I argue that the bands on Polyvinyl are a more organic progression from mid-'90s post-hardcore. Instead of aping the first two Get Up Kids records with moronic and sophomoric cheese, Polyvinyl's records attract a wide audience that will keep coming back even after they finish college. They're a label, just like many of the labels listed above, that puts out of music that is for anybody that's interested in music as a dense form of expression instead of as an accessory. Their records don't sound like they nabbed a bunch of young and underdeveloped bands, sent them to Guitar Center for all new equipment, hooked them up with some hot producer and made a glossy record spewing all sorts of neutered sounds. Nope, this is indie rock more akin to what traditional indie rock is: poppy music that isn't for the lowest common denominator.

My introduction to Polyvinyl came with Braid's third album, Frame & Canvas, and the interest grew from there. Being introduced to Rainer Maria, matt pond PA, Sunday's Best and the Ivory Coast through college radio, I wouldn't say I was a hardcore fan of the label, but I noticed there was a consistency with their stuff. Great packaging that was simple, but effective, with usually really worthwhile music that wasn't solely for the emo/post-hardcore crowd. This is still the case, but in the last few years, the label has expanded its roster and its diversity has grown with it.

The reason why I wanted to highlight the label in Post was because of the Braid connection. Co-owner Matt Lunsford was a longtime friend of the band and the label helped release a few Braid 7"s. Offering to release the band's breakthrough full-length, Frame & Canvas, the band would receive some nice and wide attention in all sorts of places, including a certain Alternative Press piece that caught my eye. Feeling that Polyvinyl needed some coverage, I got in touch with Matt.

During our interview, the topic of skateboarding came up because that's how he knew future Braid members Roy Ewing and Todd Bell. Telling me that skateboarding "defined my personality," his thoughts turned large lightbulbs on in my head. As someone who was into skateboarding not just for the air tricks and grinds, but for the mentality behind it, I could really relate. When you're skating, you're not looking at the world as something that's there to take for granted: you're looking to do something in the world with what you have at your disposal. This is a basic mindset of the DIY work ethic. I could relate to this back when I was younger and I can still relate to this.

The reason for all this backstory is that this is what makes the label special. Sure, there is temptation to release only what "the kids" want and make a whole bunch of money, but thinking about things in the long term, is this really the best strategy? I say no. I like to see labels that forge ahead with releasing, as Matt put it to me, "good, original music," regardless of commercial potential. This stuff isn't a reinvention of the wheel, but it's definitely not a cheap knockoff of a wheel that fell off years ago.

Though I had sort of lost track of Polyvinyl's output in the first few years after college, I've been following what they've been doing a little closer for the last couple of them. As evidenced by Polyvinyl's releases in the last few years, there isn't a doubt in my mind that the label hasn't lost its way.

I reviewed Picastro's Metal Cares for Punk Planet last year and gave it high regards. While it's a record you have to sit with, it's a really unique blend of brittle folk and gothic ballads. Using spare guitar, light female vocals, melancholy cello, old piano and simple drums, Metal Cares isn't necessarily upbeat, driving music for me. Rather, it's good to have on for a slow day at home. The same can be said for Ida's Heart Like a River. Gorgeous, three-part, male/female vocals over soft and folky guitar, piano and light drums aren't the recipe for moshing, but again, that's not what the aim is.

Coming from a much different angle, ZZZZ's Palm Reader melds deranged, spastic math rock with saxophone, keyboards, bass and drums. Then there's the fun and full sunny pop of Saturday Looks Good to Me and Of Montreal along with the stripped-down pop of Mates of State. Though this stuff was released last year, I'm still finding a lot to dig in with these kinds of acts. I'm just beginning with the stuff that's been released this year.

Aloha, a band my friend Jeremy introduced me to last year, released their fourth LP, Some Echoes, last month. Evoking moods of mellow Steely Dan (sans noodly guitar solos) in spots with its keyboards/marimba/guitar/drums set-up, I argue that Some Echoes is better than their previous effort, Here Comes Everyone. Though I really dig a number of songs on Here Comes Everyone, Some Echoes feels like a complete album. Though this album is mellower and more subtle, each song has its own unique flair. They have a consistently strong appeal, especially the super-catchy third track, "Your Eyes". I never imagined mathy rock to be this poppy, especially with marimba and keyboards as main instruments.

The Like Young is a married couple primarily featuring dual vocals, guitar and drums. Though that may sound like Mates of State retread or another garage blues duo, the Like Young is neither. Last Secrets is more or less straight-forward rock with a slight tint towards a Sleater-Kinney-like style of guitar. The catch is, this is incredibly melodic at the same time. Yes, this is only two people playing together, but instead of leaving all sorts of empty space, they are doing enough playing off of each other that a third or fourth member would be too much.

Then there is the M's. Their second album, Future Women, was my introduction to their stuff and I'm rather puzzled how I can describe these guys. I don't mean this in a bad way, but this is some really wild mixing of styles here. Though they could be thought of as a Sixties throwback to the Kinks and Beach Boys, there is a messy, dirty-like nature to their songs. They definitely bring some rockin' riffs in spots but they aren't all about this. Their buzzy, bash pop is sometimes countered with surprises (like the strings-filled, "Light I Love"). Maybe you could say this is loose garage rock that's not all about rocking out and having a wild time.

All this said for just one label, I don't mean to write up puff pieces or promotional fluff with these label spotlights. While I shouldn't be so ticked off at the mall-friendly version of punk, emo or hardcore, I'm reminded of it in so many different places I look these days. Feeling like there is a lack of talking up of great labels that came from the mid-'90s world of what was sometimes called post-hardcore and later all bunched together as emo, I gotta give credit where credit's due.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Polyvinyl is such a great great and totally diverse label. Virtually everything they have put out is fantastic. Lately, Owens stuff has been really good.