Happy Mediums- POLARA
"IT WAS AWFUL. I TRIED NOT TO SCREAM."
Sipping a mid-afternoon soda on Hennepin Avenue, Jennifer Jurgens is recounting her most recent personal trauma. Just a few mornings ago, the Polara singer/guitarist/keyboardist slammed her left hand in the bathroom door. Three days and two taxing performances later, the wound is still tightly wrapped in thick layers of Ace bandage; an exposed and swollen thumbnail, bruised the color of charcoal, peeks out from the dressing. "I think I'm just going to have to lance it," she says, jabbing at the thumb, her soft smirk going suddenly pale. "I'll have to do it myself--I don't have any health insurance."
Such is the electric, high-sheen life of a major-label recording artist. Jurgens was swept up last spring along with her Polara bandmates--drummer Peter Anderson, bassist Jason Orris and reluctant ringleader Ed Ackerson--by alternative powerhouse Interscope Records, a company whose roster features some of rock's biggest recent success stories: No Doubt, the Wallflowers, Marilyn Manson. Medical coverage is absent from the varied benefits of their enviable multirecord deal. But as Jurgens, Anderson, and Ackerson wax humbly over Cokes and Camels (Orris is tied up elsewhere), it's clear that, at least for today, this is a band with few complaints.
A brief history: Local monitors of modern rock were reeling for months under the spell of the group's 1995 debut Polara, which handed a crisp and quirky pop methodology to the Twin Cities scene. Draping familiar song structures in sheets of wiggy effects, warm drones, and hypno-melodic telemetry, the record not only documented Ackerson's taste for sonic adventuring and retro-pop loyalism, but also earmarked a local psychedelic revival that had many young fans suddenly looking back to their future. Moog synthesizers began to surface regularly on the New Band Night stage at the 7th Street Entry; analog-effects gear surged into vogue; tripped-out noise was cool again. While this was happening worldwide thanks to acts like Stereolab and the Flaming Lips, Polara was among the first high-profile bands to help shift the local punk zeitgeist. In a laudatory "New Faces" feature, Rolling Stone suggested that front man Ackerson, himself a scene fixture since his days fronting the quietly adored 27 Various and running sound for scores of Minneapolis rock acts, was the "kingpin of a resurgent Minneapolis music scene," poised to "singlehandedly redefine the Minneapolis sound." (This month, however, while stamping Polara's new C'est la Vie with an enthusiastic three-and-a-half stars, the aging rock journal managed to change Ed's last name to "Ackerman." Make of that what you will.)
Cut to 7th Street Entry, 1997, where Ackerson and company have enlisted a bundle of like-minded rock experimentalists for a formidable three-night stand in celebration of their new CD. Buddying up to the acclaimed and unconventional likes of Silkworm and Olivia Tremor Control, the Polara crew puts a thick finish on each evening with taut ribbons of trembling fuzz effects. With the sting of the door frame still fresh, Jurgens winces a bit as the band stomps through the new, melodically barbed "Sort It Out," Ed emphatically twisting his guitar to spit out warped, siren-like fragments of noise.
It's a sound that, again, is partway between familiar rock turf and unmoored experimentalism. "In rock right now, there's not really that much that's exciting sonically," Ackerson laments. "In more dance-oriented electronic music, there's some interesting things happening, but not in the rock world. I was inspired by a lot of late '60s-early '70s German bands, the space rock kind of stuff. Nobody really heard it much at the time, but it's amazing just to hear the things those people were pulling off with much more limited technology. Bands like Neu!, Faust, and Can were selling thousands of records, not millions or even hundreds of thousands. But of course, that stuff flies directly in the face of commercial pop music. We're not quite that far out."
If Polara was born largely of introspective abandon, C'est la Vie is a markedly tweaked exercise in pragmatic extroversion. Heady textures, synth lines, and samples are still in place, but rather than subsisting on their own ethereal vibes, the bulk of the new songs take a turn for the deliberate. Aggressive hooks, a sturdier guitar-rock fabric, and a bigger, bolder vocal attack announce Polara the Band rather than simply Polara the Sound.
"It's a definite contrast. I'm sure there are people who won't like it," Ackerson admits offhandedly. "A lot of people really dug the more atmospheric stuff. With C'est la Vie we knew we were making a distinct step forward. Or sideways--I'm not sure which."
Slanted as it seems, the step was hardly sudden. The group wrote and recorded nearly 30 new songs over the course of a hectic year of touring and career negotiation, actually missing two delivery dates to Interscope before finally stamping C'est la Vie a finished product this past winter. There are stories to be told, embedded in the politically bent "Pantomime," the melancholy "Shanghai Bell," and the cathartic, post-Peter Brady anthem "Transformation." "Other Side" takes stabs at the alt-rock machine while "Make It Easy" grapples with a love gone difficult.
With synthetic sounds gaining a wider audience via techno-derived and effects-heavy rock, Polara's happy medium offers some hope for studio geeks that rock & roll isn't altogether dead. Even if their latest outing leans toward a more straightforward, road-tested rock sound, the group's electronic savvy should keep them afloat through the industry's apparent post-alternative ebb.
Still, with a contract whose ink is still virtually wet, a new album whose commercial prognosis is entirely vague, and a hell of a lot of touring to do, it's ironic that the foursome has encountered the usual fame-related local backlash.
"There are people now who actually think this is star time," says Ackerson. "We've felt that [backlash]... There's people who are like, 'You guys got it made,' which is ridiculous. This is only a starting point--it's so early. In one way, putting out our new [Interscope] record is sort of a watershed event. But in another way, nothing's really started yet. The work has really just begun." He grins. "And I'm very patient."
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