Rock soldiers of peace

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      The Polyphonic Spree ditches robes for military fatigues and does battle-by-voices with Dubya on The Fragile Army.

      As eternally optimistic as he seems when leading the blissed-out mini-army known as the Polyphonic Spree, Tim DeLaughter also has his share of dark days. For a start, there's the small matter that, after six years together, the 24-piece choral symphonic rock group is no closer to being financially sustainable than when it first formed. Then there's the fact that record companies have no idea how to market his band, which explains why each of the Spree's three albums, including the new The Fragile Army, has been released on a different label. What might be troubling DeLaughter most these days, though, is that the country he's proud to call home has never been more despised by the rest of the world. Imagine being on a mission to make the globe a sunnier, more uplifting place, and then consider what it would be like to tell people you come from the same state as George W. Bush.

      Dubya and the mess he's made in Iraq serve as a starting point for figuring out where the Spree is coming from on The Fragile Army. The record is relentlessly positive, but the coded lyrics suggest that DeLaughter has spent plenty of evenings thinking about the cloud that's currently hanging over the planet.

      "It's horrible, because what George Bush has done has affected the world, not just my country," the Dallas native says, on the line from a Montreal tour stop. "There's a massive amount of hatred towards Americans right now–we're the most hated country on the planet because of what that man has done. It's unfortunate, because the majority of Americans do not agree with him at this point."

      That was driven home when the Polyphonic Spree recently swung through the U.K., which, a half-decade ago, was the first country to officially embrace the band.

      "When we were touring the U.K. in the heat of everything happening with the war, it was tough being an American," the singer says candidly. "Bush kind of infiltrated Tony Blair and got them mixed up in things.”¦At night, when you'd be talking to the crowd, you had to say 'Hey man, I'm not part of what's going on over there [in Iraq]. I agree with you, and I'm real sorry."

      Approaching world events from a personal point of view, The Fragile Army presents a very different version of the Polyphonic Spree than the band's first two albums, The Beginning Stages of”¦. and Together We're Heavy. Those discs, and the subsequent tours, famously found the group's members sporting summer-of-'67 hair and flowing robes, which got them pegged as wide-eyed emissaries from the Church of Indie Rock. The robes have been ditched for The Fragile Army in favour of sleek, black military uniforms, suggesting that the Spree is ready to do battle, although not on the side of Dick Cheney and the U.S. military-industrial complex. That much is made clear by the album closer "The Championship", a sunshine-sprayed alterna-popper where DeLaughter sings of crosses becoming guns and soldiers marching till dawn. More cryptic is the Queen-style, aimed-at-Bush pomp-rocker "The Fragile Army", which says "The world wants to know if we're ready to put you on the floor." Musically, DeLaughter has backed off on the idea that every Polyphonic Spree song requires all hands on deck. The baroque pop of "We Crawl" finds the cellists and horn players each picking their spots. Add in songs like "Get Up and Go", where DeLaughter, who once fronted alt-nation act Tripping Daisy, rediscovers his love of '90s-era college rock, and you've got an album as great as the idea of the Polyphonic Spree itself, which is no small feat.

      As far as the overhauled look goes, those who are convinced that DeLaughter isn't fronting a band as much as a feel-good cult will get new ammunition; the new duds look vaguely like the uniforms sported by the members of Heaven's Gate, whose believers committed suicide in 1997 to ensure a place on a spaceship that was supposedly passing by Earth.

      "The band has evolved, the sound has evolved, and the uniform has evolved," DeLaughter says. "We've had white robes, multicoloured robes, red robes, and robes that had a lifeline moving through them.”¦Now we're streamlined for the future.”¦They are basically military fatigues with symbols of peace on them–so we don't get shot."

      The robes also served a purpose, although one less emblematic than their uniforms today.

      "I didn't want everyone wearing street clothes, which would be distracting," "DeLaughter says. "Robes were easy–they covered everyone head to toe, and they were one-size-fits-all.”¦But then everyone started thinking 'They're a cult, because they're from Texas.' I created a monster."

      What he also created was one of the most awesome spectacles in all of rock 'n' roll. If heaven has Sunday-morning services for indie rockers, you somehow know that it looks just like the Polyphonic Spree's live performances, which feature a 10-member choir as well as everything from flutes, vibraphones, and theremins to french horns, cellos, and piccolos. Even more impressive is that the group doesn't put on shows as much as all-out lovefests. Talk to anyone who was at the band's one-and-only Vancouver appearance to date at Richard's on Richards back in 2003. DeLaughter has played some memorable gigs in his time, including a televised 2004 Nobel Peace Prize event for Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai. But Richards is right up there for him, mostly because the vibe in the room was so wildly electric. If the Polyphonic Spree was indeed a cult, 500 enraptured Vancouverites would have piled out of the club that night, boarded waiting school buses, and happily headed directly to the compound in Dallas.

      Amazing as that night was, though, DeLaughter says the city hasn't seen anything yet. Because as much as he has worries at night, the Polyphonic Spree's ability to bring the magic on-stage isn't one of them.

      "What pays off for us is the shows," he says. "I really think we are one of the best live bands in the world. And we're the best that we've ever been right now. We're going to give fans in Vancouver the show of their lives."

      The Polyphonic Spree plays the Commodore on Friday (July 13).