Polica delve into personal turmoil
As closing time approaches at the Electric Fetus, the record store is all but empty. The four members of Minneapolis synth-pop experimenters Poliça are setting up for an after-hours performance promoting their sophomore album, Shulamith. Only 250 people will be allowed in. Almost an hour before showtime, out in the brisk 30-degree air, there's already a line wrapping around the front of the building.
Kneeling down on a small, wooden stage inside the store is singer Channy Leaneagh. She cuts a slim, delicate figure, with streaks of red splashed through her short dark hair. As she sets up her microphone's pedal board, which warps her voice into strange, disembodied shapes, a pair of tattoos on her hands peek out from beneath her sleeves — one a series of x's and o's, the other her daughter's name, Pela. Seated near her is her mother, who holds a wide-eyed Pela on her lap.
For Leaneagh, the past couple of years have been a whirlwind. Not long after Pela's birth came the dissolution of her marriage and, with it, her band Roma di Luna. Then Poliça evolved from a bedroom project to full-time touring act in a matter of months, playing festivals like Coachella and filling venues like New York's Webster Hall.
"I've become a little bit angrier, probably — a little more cynical," Leaneagh admits, reflecting on how all of those developments have affected her. "This record to me was more like, 'I don't even need any of you anyways. I don't need this relationship, I don't need this love. I can be alone.'"
Shulamith, released through New York label Mom + Pop, shows that wear and tear. Recorded in bits and pieces when the band — including bassist Chris Bierden and dual drummers Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu — were between tours, the record has some songs that were started more than two years ago. There's a suitably wearied, disillusioned undercurrent to the music. But those months spent together on the road also make for a fuller sound. Once they dive into show-opener "Spilling Lines," the band moves in one fluid motion. The drummers, wearing headphones, hunch over their kits in back, while curly-haired Bierden bobs along over to the side, the stage so small that he largely stands in place.
Even Leaneagh barely has room to twirl and dance around. She seems somehow inside herself, her banter with the audience a little absentminded. Then again, this life is a far cry from her days as a violin and preschool teacher.
From a musical standpoint, Shulamith sounds familiar, an evolution of the sketches that producer Ryan Olson used as the foundation for their debut, 2012's Give You the Ghost. "[This] feels like our first record — whereas Ghost was like a demo and experimentation," Leaneagh says. In some ways, it lacks a bit of that earlier spontaneity and variety, with no songs that reach the abrasive feedback of "Amongster" or the desolate space of "Wandering Star."
But as Bierden lurches into the bass line of "Torre," it's clear these songs are a different beast. Shulamith is a dance record, and its dense rhythms are more immersive than anything on its predecessor. The lyrics are also darker, often bleak and bloody, and when coupled with the beats, their pain becomes intoxicating, even sexy. In fact, thanks to the waterboarding video for Justin Vernon collaboration "Tiff" and the album's grisly artwork, that violence has become an integral part of Poliça's aesthetic.
The album title refers to '60s feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone, and the connections aren't difficult to parse. "The record was done and it was getting mixed, and my brother gave me a [copy of Firestone's] Dialectic of Sex," Leaneagh recalls. "I just read that book and was like, 'This woman, I just agree with everything she says.' Well, maybe not everything, but she kind of answered all the questions that I was proposing on the record."
Shulamith is a more self-possessed record, with lines like "Who's the lion? I am" and "I don't want a diamond ring" resonating for their assertiveness. Yet, when Leaneagh spits, "I'm a pawn in the hype machine," it's clear there's more to the conflict than just bad romance. It's tempting to relate these songs to Leaneagh, but she's careful to avoid conflating her own life with her music, which she says "kills all the joy" of the art.
"I don't write records for sympathy," she says, feigning a sympathetic tone. "I think that as a woman, I truly believe that you have to fight a lot harder for people to listen to you, for people to not be like, 'Oh my gosh, you seem so sad. Your songs are so sad.'"
On stage, her defenses are at their strongest — it's here that she can be the warrior she sings of. For one moment, though, she looks straight across the room, and a smile brightens her face. She waves. In back, Pela, being held by her grandmother, waves back happily.
"I had a very simple life," Leaneagh says, cryptically. "I'm constantly trying to figure out my relationship to music, and if I should stay or I should go."
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