Can brainy music be fun? Can musicians with university pedigrees get down? Can a band with six Americans convincingly pull off songs influenced by African trance music and classical Hindustani and Persian vocal patterns? You look skeptical, but Seattle/Los Angeles sextet Pollens make a strong case for the affirmative.
What began in 2008 at Cornish College of the Arts as a two-person computer-assisted project between guitarists/vocalists Hanna Benn and Jeff Aaron Bryant has bloomed into a complicated six-headed organism blessed with supple vocal cords and the skill to arrange them into strikingly gorgeous shapes.
Following the April 2011 release of the outstanding debut EP Pollens (co-recorded by Fleet Foxes' Morgan Henderson and mastered by Rafael Anton Irisarri), Benn and Bryant wanted to create a fuller sound via choral ensembles. They enlisted keyboardist Kelly Wyse, bassist Lena Simon, and keyboardist Whitney Lyman, and then drummer Adam Kozie of X-Ray Press became interested in Pollens after they opened for his band (Wyse was also in X-Ray Press). Everyone in Pollens sings, and the tapestries they weave rival those of Dirty Projectors for sophistication and gender counterpoint and interplay.
Pollens songs are high-wire balancing acts between hypnotic repetition and surprising dynamics. Moroccan and Congolese trance music somehow smoothly integrates with song structures that combine elements of folk, prog, minimalist composition, and those world-class choral maneuvers. All of these components elegantly coalesce on Pollens' new album, Brighten & Break, released on the last day of 2011.
Bryant, Benn, Simon, and Lyman all majored in composition at Cornish, studied African drumming, and played in the college's gamelan ensemble. Wyse was a piano performance major and Kozie studied jazz percussion. This ain't your typical bunch of indie-rock sad sacks flailing at the Elliott Smith songbook. Pollens' modal, polyrhythmic music makes most of their local peers sound like underachievers.
"I think what set this group apart from our studies and our other bands was the singing," says Bryant. "It's how we got to know each other, and it makes up half of what we are doing. The other half is repetition; all of us have an affinity for trance musics and thinking of longer timescales than the typical three-minute pop form. We all love to stretch out and live in a space or groove or whatever for as long as it takes."
Bryant writes the lyrics and some of the melodies while Benn helps out with the tunesmithery and handles most of the choral composition. They both finesse the arrangements, which, Bryant says, "mostly come from improvising in a mode and trying out each other's vocal parts until everybody has something that makes sense with their bodies."
The aim of Pollens' complex vocal arrangements seems to be to overwhelm the listener with beauty, to pile on the layers of dulcet harmonies until you swoon yourself to exhaustion, and it all must be a bastard to memorize and master. Bryant notes, "Hanna is a fantastic choral composer... she's got the best GarageBand files you've ever heard. We do our best to make those ideas sound full with only six voices. The interplay is how we keep things moving and active. Since active repetition is often the goal, the vocal parts function to keep everyone engaged such that at every repeat we are all always making a 'new' sound."
But maybe songs can get too refined? Perhaps they can spiral into a black hole of complexity for its own sake? Bryant denies that such a thing is possible. "Refinement is the goal," he states with finality.
The essential paradox of Pollens is how this rigorous refinement, which could come off as academic and arid, translates into ebullient, exciting recordings and live performances.
"Pollens is making the music that we wish existed," Bryant observes. "We are a combination of the influences that we feel didn't get enough attention in the music we are pulling from... like songs that aren't long enough, or harmonies that only appear for a verse, or patterns that only get complex for the breakdown."
Being a sextet composed of three men and three women is uncommon in rock/pop circles. There's certainly potential for Fleetwood Mac scenarios of romantic embroilment. But Bryant says Pollens have experienced nothing of the sort. In fact, the setup is "perfect for singing, it's perfect in the van and for hanging out."
How harmonious—just like Pollens' music.