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Two decades ago, I would have laughed if you'd told me that the author of "Cows," the Suburbs song that memorably leered at the lower extremities of livestock, would one day be teaching "Songwriting for Pop Musicians" at the MacPhail Center for the Arts. But Chan Poling may be the most "established" weirdo to emerge from the local late-Seventies new-wave scene that blossomed around the Suicide Commandos (whose guitarist, Chris Osgood, happens to be Poling's co-instructor at MacPhail). Having co-founded and played keyboards in the 'Burbs, one of the most hilarious and addictive Minnesota dance-pop bands this side of the Time (and far more oblique), Poling went on to compose acclaimed works for theater and movies, and he now runs a company producing television commercials.
Currently, the Bosnia-themed musical Heaven, which he scored, is being readied by the Ordway for a fall debut in New York. An animated film he created is in development with director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas). Oh, and he has a new solo album, Calling All Stars (Manifesto), his first rock 'n' roll outing in ten years, with music that reflects his broad interests but remains just catchy and simple enough to buy him credibility with those students unimpressed by geezer tour stories. I mean, who is R.E.M., anyway?
Or more to the point, who are the Suburbs?
Anyone who doesn't know "Cows" from "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" might be surprised to learn that the 'Burbs sold 10,000 copies locally of their 1982 12-inch single "Music for Boys" on the legendary indie label Twin/Tone. Soon after, they found themselves playing packed Hollywood concerts where strangers knew every lyric, and they signed to two consecutive major labels. But despite critical acclaim and college-radio enthusiasm, they faltered in a national arena not yet ready for them (like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü) and disbanded by 1987. A few years later, Poling could accept a workshop gig teaching songwriting at Moorhead State University (initially with Osgood and Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould) without being troubled by autograph seekers.
Fans remember the Suburbs' four consecutive sell-out nights at First Avenue in 1993 (they released an album documenting the event two years later), but most may not know that the band recorded new demos afterward, only to find major-label interest lukewarm. "We thought, 'Heck, the Suburbs are still a popular band, it'll be easy to get a record deal,'" says the soul-patched Poling over drinks at Bev's Wine Bar in Minneapolis's Warehouse District. "And it was not easy at all."
Poling cites the classic "artistic differences" (with air quotes) as the major reason the group couldn't just stick it out without corporate backing. But he adds that he's still open to a reunion, and he mentions that the group's back catalog is seeing rerelease on Universal Records this fall.
All of this would matter little to fans were Poling's "Love is the best thing" refrain on the new album's "Science" not every bit as catchy as the Suburbs classic "Love Is the Law," or his compositional touches on other new tunes (combining cabaret, horn charts, and surf-guitar within a few bars) not so playful. Only his pre-new-romantic melodic tastes date him on Calling All Stars, which sounds like Bryan Ferry after a lifetime in the theater--albeit with nods to Björkish trip hop. Amid the stately violin of Jim Price and the reggae-guitar textures of Terry Eason, Poling fairly bubbles with Bowie-like theatrical flair on "I Don't Want to Kill Anymore," a lush little number that casts the singer as a vampire who must coax his weary sweetheart home to the coffin after a good night's bloodletting. (He similarly casts himself as Frankenstein's monster on another song.) Love (and lust) is still the law in Poling's lyrics. But weird is the lay of the land.