Debuting as a flip pop-rock duo of singer-guitarist-songwriter Ed Ackerson and drummer Jed Mayer, Minneapolis’ 27 Various used the magic of overdubbing to assemble a complete guitar-band sound on the amateurishly inventive Hi. Clever songs (the vituperative “Principal Percival” and “Tempermental Artist,” the trippy “Venetian Blinds”), nice instrumental touches and a variety of styles (including droney mod psychedelia and Something Else-era Kinks) suggest witty possibilities but don’t quite add up.
Jettisoning the first album’s topical humor and haphazard approaches, the duo drafted two new members and planted their feet firmly in the ’60s on the well-produced Yes, Indeed. With songs like “Feedtime for Martin” and “Stick It in and Bake It,” the accomplished mix of lightweight garage psychedelia and offbeat Anglo-pop avoids overt nostalgia in favor of more intriguingly idiosyncratic designs.
But that was only the beginning for Ackerson, who was on his way to becoming an assured and able multi-faceted rocker with a specialty in foot-pedal power. Still reveling in the past as a form of modern life, 27 Various came into its own as a trio on Approximately, respecting the derivative limitations of looking backwards while acknowledging a few obvious touchstones: the Byrdsy connotation of 12-string guitars on “I Feel Damage(d)” and “Like the Poison,” a nod to the lighter side of Their Satanic Majesties Request on “You Look a Treat” and a Rutlesque effort to adapt a couple of Beatles songs for “The Things I Wasn’t Supposed to See.” An ace collection of striking songs and confident performances, Approximately is more than the sum of its borrowings, and proves that Ackerson knows better than to dwell entirely in the past.
Up is another excellent showcase for Ackerson’s thoughtfully modulated guitar playing and genre-jumping songwriting. (It doesn’t hurt that he borrowed one song each from Buffalo Springfield-era Neil Young and Graham Day of England’s Prisoners.) Whether kicking a nitrous two-car snarl in “Put Me Down,” setting a sweet power pop sound to sizzle-fry in “Happening/Sometime” (crossing the dB’s with Let’s Active in the process), doing bouncy country rock in “Lay It On, Elaine,” setting off a flower-carpet tremolo trip in “While You Can” or plastering fuzz all over the walls in “Doesn’t Matter to You,” 27 Various comes in as many flavors as Heinz — but with far better jingles.
Although it was recorded with the same lineup as Up less than a year later, Fine has less to do with Ackerson’s past than his future. Besides the introduction of Farfisa organ and Moog synthesizer to a mounting arsenal of new/old instruments, he comes down hard on the distortion effects, erecting a monumental wall of roaring, pliable dream noise on which to paint his calm pop vocals. Occasionally sketching out the plan on acoustic guitar before opening the floodgates, the band sounds like My Bloody Valentine speeding on mood elevators. Carefully stretched across melodic frames, sterling songs like “You’ve Got It Bad” and “Out of Mohair” go over the top with marvelous, sensual results, holding their shape through the wobbly storms.
Ackerson then dissolved 27 Various, did road time playing loud guitar in Antenna and finally settled in to record a solo album under the group name Polara. Using Matt Wilson (formerly a guitarist in Trip Shakespeare) on drums and Antenna/Velo-Deluxe leader John Strohm on guitar, with contributions from vocalist Jennifer JeRae Jurgens, an “electronics” player, a flautist and a few others, Ackerson lets keyboards, samplers, programming and “effect manipulation” spread the thick, disorienting jam without abandoning guitar or his primal commitment to the pop song. Polara uses roughly the same elements as Fine to trigger soft explosions of a more convoluted and exploratory nature, and as a result is a more challenging, uneven and rewarding album. Without a standard formulation, the burbling additions, whirling thingamabobs and submarine descents come and go unpredictably, barely accenting some tracks and overloading others enough to sink them. At Polara‘s most effective, strong songs are colored in with sparkly sounds from mystery galaxies; at the other end, adequate songs are drowned in random fingerpainting. The quiet noise washes lurking in “Taupe” put atmospheric pressure into a simple acoustic number; “Avenue E” weaves a pulsing sequencer figure through a song custom-designed for such embroidery. In this context, the throwback sound of “Source of Light” is a treat. Not so much a great leap forward as a door opening to many new possibilities, Polara delivers a talented pioneer to the world he was born to explore.
After signing to Interscope and releasing an EP to preview some of its songs, Polara dropped its second album, C’est la Vie. Despite a new drummer (Peter Anderson) and bassist (Jason Orris), the band’s plans are much the same — psychedelic distortion, wild sound for the hell of it, crossed with tuneful songwriting and innocently cryptic lyrics (e.g., “Wasted in the wasteland / Crawling toward the grandstand / You gotta make your own fun.”) “Idle Hands” (after “Pantomime,” the disc’s strongest, most focused track) and “Light the Fuse and Run” aptly describe the album’s modus operandi, though Ackerson is in full control of what happens when his bombs go off.
Picking up from the frisky electro-dance instrumental bonus track that ends C’est la Vie, Formless/Functional (which ended Polara’s major-label experience) brings Ackerson (joined here by Anderson and Jurgens, whose vocal and instrument role is more prominent than ever) partway out of the six-string popnoise storm and into the rhythmatic post-guitar realm of synthesizers, loops and samples. Although the album goes on a bit too long, the results are more stylish and sophisticated and make it a worthy trade for the fuzz pedals and digital delays: Ackerson’s creativity is no less colorful or effective in this realm, and the challenge of the new proved stimulating, bringing vocals to the fore and applying a greater dynamic range to his songs. Several essentially acoustic ballads (“Halo,” “Semi-Detached”) and an ambitiously old-school swipe at Paul McCartney in the ’70s provide balance for the occasionally meandering electronica and offer an encouraging reminder that playing with machines hasn’t stopped the band’s human heart from beating.
A retreat to more familiar turf (as well as to Ackerson’s own label), Jetpack Blues wisely injects techno elements into roaring guitars rather than the other way around. Rather than evincing a loss of nerve or imagination, Ackerson is at the top of his game here. Diverse, well-crafted songs that stick and playing that roars thrillingly out of the speakers make this Polara’s best album, a modern Anglo-American power-pop noisefest that pushes hard and really gets somewhere. Made by Ackerson and Jurgens (whose vocals remain an extremely beneficial component) with bassist Dan Boen and guests, the album surges with energy, enthusiasm and a personable tone that cuts through the daunting curtain of sound. “Can’t Get Over You” (dig the wailing blues harp), “Jetpack Blues” and “Is This It?” kickstart the album, which stays strong, touching on retro funk (“Wig On”), tabla-driven psychedelica (“Overboard”), acoustic balladry (“The Story So Far”) and sheer sonic glory (“Other”) before the end.
The next six years saw only one Polara release, the Green Shoes EP (five songs and a remix of the title tune), until the 2008 arrival of Beekeeping, a straightforward guitar pop album with few digressions that drops Polara right back in action with all of its strengths not only intact but more smoothly integrated than ever. Though diversity was an intermittent Polara strength, Ackerson’s songwriting is so good here, and his skilled confidence so strong, that keeping it simple is fine. (Not that his arrangements are so simple: there’s always a lot going on just under the surface sheen of surging guitar richness.) The sullen “Game Over” is the obvious highlight, but “Longest Day,” “Both Ends Burning” (not the Roxy Music number) and “Happy Ending” run close seconds. The durable spine of Midwest power pop runs smoothly through the entire enterprise, subtly connecting this music to less sonically ambitious auteurs like Adam Schmitt and Darren Robbins.
Sideways is an Ackerson instrumental side project. The 2007 solo album is likewise a one-man show, but of vocal songs. The reserved energy level, which should not be a hazard for a talented songwriter (as opposed to a gifted noisemaker), has the unintended effect of making Ackerson’s lyrics carry more of the weight than the melodies, and that’s counter to his strengths. As if to underscore that, the scornful “Waste of Time” and the quizzical Chris Stamey-like “Wired Weird,” which exceptionally field a full band sound, are by far the most compelling tracks. While the basic instrument is acoustic guitar, the arrangements incorporate electricity and electronics, sometimes lightly, sometimes more aggressively, but the intimacy — rather than engaging attention and empathy — makes for an oddly remote and forgettable album.