It's not spin, it's torque

by Lorna Lentini

P-L reminds me of fighting over the TV, pre-remote: Born of the time when a) there was generally just one set per home, which entailed sharing; and b) you actually had to get up off the couch and cross the room to "spin the dial." Older or larger siblings generally imposed their program preferences as a tag-team, keeping the smaller ones at bay with any and all means at hand (and since there was no remote, both hands were freed to administer head noogies, half-nelsons, hammerlocks and applied Sunday afternoon wrestling moves). At any rate, a satisfying switch of the television dial at that time produced a bone fide, straight jump cut in no way resembling the digital suspension between channels (the radio equivalent of "dead air") we currently endure. You could see -- and hear -- what you were missing en route to where you were going, like it or not.

Elmore Leonard: "Leave out the part that readers tend to skip." Polygraph Lounge: "Skip the part that listeners tend to expect."

Forget/To hell with New Media. This is very old media: Showbiz.

Joe' Pub. Closest thing to a classic mid-century (that's twentieth century, the last millennium) New York night club (if self-consciously so) you're going to find. It's faux, but it manages to make you crave the flattering low light from shaded lamps, one to a table, and a glass of whiskey, unembellished. Except tonight I've got a clear view of the stage over the heads of two or three 8-year-olds sucking back a round of sodas. Real 8-year-olds, with buzz-cuts and pants that fit and baseball hats worn the right way around, like snap-brims.

Anyway. The interplay between P-L's bait-and-switch tactics (a mild, brief, yet sadistic smile flickers across Rob's lips as Mark takes an extended percussion solo popping -- no, pounding -- his cheeks. Rob's shadow of a grin says it all: "That's gotta smart. Great.") The back-and-forth between them is like internal "thought" balloons over comic-strip characters, connected by a series of diminishing bubbles?or a silent rendition of Bugs Bunny's borscht-belt to-camera asides. This is particularly evident at Joe's Pub, since there are actual lighting cues at work here (as opposed to a single, probably overwhelmed sound person).

Novelistic. "Never waste a secondary character." Or, in the case of the Polygraph Lounge boys, a tertiary reference. Deeply digressive [ex.], transgressive [ex.] and ultimately delightful [payoff], the work nonetheless never stoops to the ubiquitous brand of puerile hostility passing, these days, as wit.

Polygraph Lounge: Not just another pair of smartasses.

The Beverly Hillbillies and, uh, "Whiter Shade of Whale," then cut to the chase in Tommy -- "Pinball Wizard," rendered by Johnny Cash under the influence of "Folsom Prison Blues." Got that? The act is one long overture. At full sail, Polygraph Lounge tends to tack hither and yon, variously tilting at and colluding with the winds of several generations worth of popular culture.

While the level of sheer musicianship is impeccable, the humor somehow remains palpably verbal; and it would be an understatement verging on disinformation to describe Rob Schwimmer as a "keyboardist," and Mark Stewart as a "guitarist," since at last count, they played 104 different?things. But you've got to start somewhere.

How do they do it, anyway?

Who cares? I could consider the deft, sly bricolage construct of the work, but let's not and say we did. If you ask me, the pleasure of this [con]text lies in leaving it up to Stewart and Schwimmer to analyze, synthesize and let it rip. They do, and their work methods are not as arcane as one would like to believe: [quote]

The compression is blinding, the effect something akin to experiencing the Smothers Brothers, Danny Kaye, and Ernie Kovacs performing simultaneously on the same bill, with Shirley Bassey, the Tijuana Brass and Led Zeppelin backing them up. The notion of "sampling" does not apply. Make no mistake: these are serious analog guys.

Shaking the 70's rock gold standard down to new lows, or lay off "Layla".

What's your favorite overblown '70s rock anthem, preferably one with an unbelievably self-indulgent, seriously overarching guitar crescendo that goes on indefinitely and still gets a lot of airplay? Seriously. I've tipped my hand. Is it Title? Title? Or how about Title? I bet you've got a cherished cut you can replay mentally note-for-note. Even money says you don't want to see these guys mess with it, but rest assured, that tune's ripe for the picking. [P-L as giant-killers.]

The Tinkerbelle effect.

The same duo manages, after a multiple-identity episode (induced by a series of electroshock jolts accidentally administered via theremin) to "bring Rob back" from his inadvertent transformation into a psychotic rodent ("I just want to sound like Barry White, but I'm Alvin, I'm pissed and I bite!"). This is accomplished by encouraging the audience to help snap him out of it, the move lifted from Peter Pan (it did the trick when Tinkerbelle was at death's door). What's really interesting is that we not only go along with this, but with great gusto -- even though Rob-as-rogue-chipmunk may be about as funny as it is humanly possible to get.

Then again, you've got to breathe sometime -- not to mention pitch in and play along on the nose flute. Out of deference to diners, patrons at Joe's Pub were not encouraged to unleash choruses of farting balloons on cue during a pause for a message from the local Jellyfish Council [?].

Party favors. Singalongs. Audience participation. An ode to an aging astronaut ("John Glen, Septuagenarian"). Hymns to wide-wale, white whales, SUVs and American cheese, Polish pierogi princesses, and James Bond anthems (deadpan showstopper courtesy of the accomplished mezzo soprano (?) Melissa Fathman, in a dress pitched somewhere between early Courreges and June Jetson).

Why do kids get it? How is this possible?

Front desk bell/elevator. Reel-to-reel. [Aural anachronisms.]

Mark Stewart pitch-perfectly wails on a series of vintage heavy-metal guitar riffs when he's not delivering songs in a clear, mellifluous tenor; while Rob Schwimmer channels and champions the lower-registered; for example, Randy Newman and Johnny Cash (with the notable exception of Alvin, whose voice is, in this case, an electronically augmented live version of Mr. Schwinner's own pipes).

Keeping track of all the stuff. How do they do it?

["God only knows," says Stewart.] Apparently, there are routine sound checks, elaborate sound checks -- and then there are Polygraph Lounge sound checks. The latter go on longer than it takes to perform a pair of live sets in a row (including intermission); and once wound up, P-L shows, with an encore or two capped off with a closing duet-as-benedictory, approach the legendary performance longueurs of the Grateful Dead (whose playbook, one sharp fan has pointed out, P-L has yet to quote, cover or otherwise convert to their own purposes). Which, come to think of it, is saying something, since Polygraph Lounge plays a lot more instruments, and more tunes with more notes in them -- much faster. And it's only a duo.

One can only conclude that This is not stoner music.

You have to pay attention [notion of linearity]. Uh-oh. Sounds worse than it is, because P-L produces an exhausted -- yet rapt -- audience. Nobody gets up to go to the washroom. People sit tight for multiple sets. The waitstaff has to really hustle drinks, and furthermore, is often shushed or ignored altogether. The material holds up to back-to-back viewings and remixed return business.

Amaze and impress your friends.

The P-L audience has grown exponentially, since you don't send your friends to see Polygraph Lounge, but rather accompany them to the next show. For one thing, it makes you look like a genius; for another, it's cheap -- and far more rewarding than the recycled Abba on Broadway. Now and forever.

Tune in to the next Polygraph Lounge gig.

The notion of a loyal, growing audience making an effort to show up repeatedly, regularly, for scheduled shows. Bit of a throwback: The way people used to make time for radio, still do for the movies -- and once upon a time tuned in to scheduled television programs, in the days before "multiple digital entertainment venues and options" snowed us all into separate rooms at personal screens, armed with remotes.

Of course, sitting spellbound en masse in front of the T.V. had its downside. Wish I'd soaked up some French irregular verbs or a few lines of Rilke instead of the self-serving, logorrheatic sentence on the back of the Crest toothpaste tube which I can still summon up, word for word. However, even the Polygraph Lounge interrupts their own musical Cliff Notes version of Moby-Dick with an eerily appetizing (and hilarious) pitch from its sponsor, "Lactater Tots" ("We gotta club 'em- You're gonna love em!").

Humor is best served -- and served up best -- when shared. Rob Schwimmer and Mark Stewart really cook, and their Polygraph Lounge act in fact warrants a regular run. [theatrical plans]

© Lorna Lentini
[ Home ] [ Gigs ] [ About ] [ Quotes and Reviews ] [ Contact ] [ Booking ] [ Rob Schwimmer ] [ Mark Stewart ] [ Melissa Fathman ] [ Videos & CD ] [ Theremin Noir ] [ Photos ] [ Instruments ] [ Links ]