In the '90s, Polvo were one of the few American groups striving to create a new lingua of rock. Their dialect definitely owed a modest debt to Sonic Youth, but Polvo (the North Carolina quartet now consisting of Ash Bowie, Dave Brylawski, Steve Popson, and Brian Quast) leaned more heavily on East Asian accents—accents all the more exotic and strange because these guys probably never visited the region. In an interview in The Stranger last year, Bowie observed that his and Brylawski's piquant guitar sounds resulted from "a combination of using cheap, shitty guitars and goofing around." Oddly enough, Polvo's "goofing" resulted in some of the most scintillating rock soundscaping and songsmithing of the Bill Clinton era.

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On In Prism (Merge), their first album since 1997's Shapes, Polvo sound like they've upgraded their equipment since crucial mid-'90s recordings like Today's Active Lifestyles and Celebrate the New Dark Age. That means that those patented, wonky guitar tones no longer materialize. For some, those eccentric efflorescences defined Polvo. Obviously, though, Polvo are much more than advanced-calculus riffs played in weird tunings. They were keen tunesmiths, too. For proof, check out "In This Life" and "Solitary Set," two of the rock underground's most exultant, well-crafted songs. Here in 2009, Polvo have made a solid set of aging-with-dignity rock on In Prism, proving that they're still cunning composers.

In Prism's melodies are fairly muted (graying distinguishingly at the temples, you could say), the tempos relatively subdued, and the bizarre guitar tunings toned down yet still skewing toward a radiant spangle. "Right the Relation" starts the album with a brawny, down-tuned attack, but the song gradually accrues more typical serpentine melodic flourishes and unpredictable halting-and-surging dynamics. Bowie's voice remains a pleasantly nondescript font of cryptic verbiage declaiming in the middle distance. The piece is epic yet somewhat restrained, like most of In Prism. The disc peaks on "Beggar's Bowl," in which crystalline guitars toll hypnotically like prime-time Terje Rypdal, while the rest of the band manifests a stomp akin to Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Under Foot." The song's climax is so thrilling, you won't even miss the fucked-up tones of those "shitty" guitars. recommended