In an article published in USA Today on June 30, 1993, Chapel Hill, N.C., was declared one of three music scenes most likely to become the “next Seattle.” Grunge put the Pacific Northwest city on the map, and Nirvana, the band most associated with grunge, made it big after signing to a major. So the “next Seattle” must have its own Nirvana, right? When asked which Chapel Hill band was most deserving of a major label contract, WXYC DJ Pat Johnson answered, “Polvo. Their sound is sort of deranged, Oriental-sounding guitars, pretty noisy.” Polvo never made it to the majors. The guitar-centric post-punk band, which formed in 1990 and broke up in 1998, released all of its output on independent labels. Lack of mainstream success, however, has had little impact on the quartet’s enduring appeal. In 2008, at the request of the popular Texas group Explosions in the Sky, Polvo got back together to play the British music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. The reunion led to more shows and, evidently, more songwriting, the fruits of which can be heard on In Prism, Polvo’s first full-length since 1997’s Shapes. What does the band sound like after a decade off? Not much different. Polvo’s music is still dominated by its two guitar players, Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski, both of whom favor a concatenation of Brit-punk chords and Southern-rock riffs. Imagine someone trying to play a Skynyrd lick on one of Sonic Youth’s untraditionally tuned guitars. That should give you a good idea of what to expect from In Prism’s opener, “Right the Relation,” a song that combines nerdiness and swagger in equal proportions. The band is even better when the mix is skewed toward the latter. Polvo more or less acknowledged as much on one of its best and most brazen songs, “Every Holy Shroud.” The track, released on 1994’s Celebrate the New Dark Age, also features one of Polvo’s most revealing lyrics: “This is how it works when we write well/Let me hear a bomb, I’ll compare it to a bell.” If the band knows when its firing on all cylinders, Polvo must’ve been ecstatic when it wrote In Prism’s “A Link in the Chain,” a song on which Bowie—who has a mellow, insouciant vocal style—comes across as almost heroic. “I welcome you to look inside,” he sings over bruising chords, “Into the rain/And through the link in the chain/A thousand waves are chanting your name.” The flip side of writing well, of course, is that not every song can be “A Link in the Chain.” In particular, the meandering, Brylawski-sung “D.C. Trails” reminds us that the band never made its Nevermind. There is no one shimmering, flawless Polvo album that fans beg to hear in its entirety. In that sense, Polvo’s latest, a mixed bag like all of its output from the ’90s, is a return to form—and, given that the band never quite peaked, a welcome one at that.
Polvo performs Saturday, Sept. 26, at Black Cat