“Give You the Ghost” rejects rustic folk ethos and embraces the synthetic

This past decade in music has been a startling rebuttal to any notion that the Midwest cannot produce great artists, with the emergence or continuing popularity of artists like Wilco, Kanye West, Sufjan Stevens, Lupe Fiasco and Bon Iver. Polica is a new group from Minneapolis whose reach does not extend even as far as that last band. Yet their skills in the studio, exemplary use of percussion, and deeply emotional songwriting puts this band on a firm footing for the future.

“Give You the Ghost” rejects a rustic folk ethos and embraces the synthetic. “Amongster,” the first track on the album, opens with blunt waves of distorted guitar. Vocalist Channy Leaneagh, like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, sings through auto-tune and makes it work. Unlike Vernon, Leaneagh’s voice is not calibrated to express deep pain but to remain aloof and indistinct. The band has helpfully included lyrics on its website, but the way the vocals are programmed and executed, the emphasis is clearly on the emotional spirit behind the words and not on their literal meaning. What lyrics there are tend to be repeated and warped into strange mantras. In “Dark Star,” Leaneagh sings “Ain’t a man in this world that can pull me down from my dark star, dark star.” Repetition builds an empathy with the singer over and through the technical distortions.

By far the most exciting part of this record, however, is its invigorating use of percussion. I have heard that the band uses two drummers, and judging from the complexity of the rhythms I would attest to that statement. Fans of progressive rock will recognize certain motifs and styles associated with that genre’s heyday, albeit pushed further into the background and never used as a platform for showing off. The texture of the music is greatly benefited by the interlocking sounds. Cold vocals, buzzing and manipulated guitars, and machine-gun drumming make this record stand apart from others making this kind of romantically-focused soul-influenced music.

When “Give You the Ghost” succeeds, it is because of the delicate interrelation of these elements and their balance being maintained. Strong tracks like “Dark Star” and the closer “Leading to Death” sound animated rather than desolate, grimly resigned rather than hopeless. Weaker songs tend to rely too heavily on one element of the sound or another or simply falter in execution. “Form,” coming near the middle of the record, begins with a seductive bass and a slab of synthesizer dazzle. However, when the vocals rise up they are layered over with an echo effect that drags on the song’s pacing and further obscure most of the genuinely good lyrical content. After three and a half minutes, the song grinds to an anticlimactic close. Nothing in the song is overtly unpalatable, but for some reason the output is less satisfying than the individual parts that went into its construction.

A brief technical recommendation: all songs are best appreciated with a pair of quality headphones, the better to fully grasp the intricate detail in the percussion and bass sections. Playing through speakers diminished the appeal of some of the vocal effects as well when I listened to the album for review.

Though it was released back in April, this mournful and distant album evokes the feelings of late fall and winter. Polica is a relatively new project but many of its members have been working for some time, and that experience shows on this record. “Give You the Ghost” runs through 45 minutes of frost and resentment that somehow with time earns your sympathy.