Of all the things Polvo’s legacy may or may not mean, the much-beloved and recently reunited Chapel Hill quartet is specialat least to mefor a wide embrace that stretched beyond its own mid-’90s indie atmosphere, in which it stood eminent. Some will surely scoff, both at the implication that four college dudes from Chapel Hill “got” those other formsdrone, raga, structured improvisation, folk music(s)or that Polvo was alone in its eccentric eclecticism. Sure, plenty of indie rock bands listened to and lifted from beyond their own guitar-centric universe, but Polvo did it with a singularity and focus that, at its best, was as seamless as it was imaginative.
Black Tajwhich pairs Polvo guitarist Dave Brylawski and bassist Steve Popson with guiarist and ex-Idyll Swordsman Grant Tennille and drummer Tom Athertonis a very specific extension of that idea. But, importantly, Black Taj tilts Polvo’s historical base, if not inverting it altogether: Where Polvo was left of center from the start, Black Taj is a blues-based boogie-rock band that stretches its instruments and ideas into realms alternately psychedelic or progressive, pop or metal. The riffs twist and flicker and hook like the best stuff your local Guitar Center offers during lunch breaks and happy hours, and Atherton and Popson flex big into the beat with a driving sort of swing. But Black Taj is brawn graced by brain, and those roles get bent quickly. Opener “Move Me,” for instance, is a pumping, top-down rock song, complete with Brylawski lines about having a “gypsy mind [that’s] running all the time.” But, as that line espouses, Brylawski and Tennille are restless sorts with their guitars, and they bind minor, slightly dissonant figures around a central muscleman riff. Imagine Lee Ranaldo woodshedding with a roadhouse band, and you get the idea. Late during closer “Little Child/Idyll Hill,” which builds from a quiet guitar-and-voice prelude to a throttled shake, Popson leaves the rhythm behind to tail one of the guitars. They circle around him, phasing out of the rhythm to build a trebly countermelody clashing against his booming bass. The record rides out on that interplay.
Beyonder, then, is the more ambitious follow-up to 2006’s self-titled and long-awaited Black Taj debut, affirming its titular mandate. Whereas “Beyonder” was only a track title on the first record, it’s the whole maxim here. Rightfully so, as these eight tracks conquer ideas the band’s more rudimentary debut sidestepped altogether. Black Taj is more finessed and subtle here, and its pointbending blues-rock with interesting, almost-overlooked nuancesworks better because of it. “Damascus,” a moody wash of phased riff sinews, lets the melody drift through, and Atherton’s economical drumming emphasizes the lyrical doldrums. But on the other side of the instrumental that follows, Black Taj blazes again with “Only For a Moment.” Its thin guitar riffs play nicely against a thick, brusque rhythm section.
Black Taj certainly doesn’t invent anything here, especially as a handful of younger bands, from California’s Comets on Fire to Baltimore’s Arbouretum, have successfully pushed a classic blues-rock helm into deeper water. But none of those bands boast the tenacity audible in Black Taj: Listen for the way Popson’s bass snaps open across the cymbals on “L.A. Shift,” or the way the band fades into and out of the instrumental “Spacewash,” as if it’s been humming and hammering these fuzzy riffs for an eternity. They’ll continue to do so.