Peter Anthony and Maddie Elyse of Los Angeles alternative rock duo, Polaris Rose, have been exploring the dynamics of human relationships and messy emotions over many records; always doing so in the company of inspiration from interpersonal trends that perhaps hit just a little close to home. Still, no matter how relatable, topics are kept light and musically addicting thanks to Anthony and Elyse’s equally effortless use of imaginative scenarios and insanely clever lyrical phrasing. Now more than three years after the release of Ocean Blue, Velvet Skies (independent, 2016), the pair are contemplating a new facet of relationships with Waves Within (independent, 2019) – the fifth installment in an ambitious six release series started back with debut EP The Moon and its Secrets in 2013.
What dimension of human relations are Polaris Rose diving into exactly? Well on the one hand, it’s the entirely familiar dynamic of a romantically committed couple. Further, it’s one that’s been together multiple years and counting, if a quick description in “Grudge” of “seven years together” is meant for the same couple through the whole record. On the other hand, when a pair of people have been devoted to each other that long, one would hazard a guess that the oft-breached song stories questioning if someone is into you or whether one fight means the big break up, are easily off the table and here, that would be accurate. Nevertheless, Waves Within isn’t trying to set up a listening experience full of predictable equilibrium with eight variations on the same content routine. If nothing else, Polaris Rose are out to show that the indication of commitment is hardly an implication of cruise controlled consistency and Waves Within does so with a frankness that might be alarming if the compositional half of its journey wasn’t made to be such a contrasting mental twist against the lyrics.
Straight away, before opener “American Dreams,” cheery dialogue seemingly incorporated from a vintage educational film on human psychology, addresses how people “have certain basic emotions which are controlled subconsciously.” This creative component is a fun and familiar callback to anyone who listened to “Soda Jerk” from the band’s previous record. While this quirky add-on doesn’t recur again until the conclusion of Waves Within, its useat the start and ending is almost like a pair of thematic bookends to the music loaded in between. It’s become something of an amusing signature of Polaris Rose’s approach to conceptual delivery. Taking note of what the opening dialogue has to say – particularly the question posed by the narrator before the audio warps away in favor of the music – is definitely a wise decision, as it sets up the running premise of all the songs.
But before any piece of the big picture can come into focus, Anthony and Elyse make sure the first thing listeners will notice is their utterly on-point performance and beautifully defined production values. Transitioning from muffled older audio to a hearty backing drum beat and some densely packed but acutely honed layered rhythm guitar can initially feel like a shock but the contrast is another aspect of arranging that absolutely embodies Polaris Rose for the catchy but complex band it is. Continue on to Elyse’s crystal clear, emphatic singing and the lyrical word play she provides only further highlights the duo’s satisfying attention to detail:
She bought her self-worth at the five-and-dime
Perfection is on sale for a limited time
She likes her sugar with a salt kiss
but it doesn’t cover up the misery inside
she’d rather just go on and live a lie
– Lyrics from “American Dreams”
For those unfamiliar, “five-and-dime” is a kind of store (think generalized descriptor like, “fast food”) that was notably popular during the earlier part of the 20thcentury. Herein lies a very subtle but still relatable thematic connection to Polaris Rose’s interest in turn of the century thinking and aesthetics. Most might not take the time to notice or investigate such a minor detail but to include it anyway reveals the degree of enthusiasm Anthony and Elyse have for inspiring curiosity among their fans. One of the best things about Waves Within is the fact that Polaris Rose makes sure to keep their established topics of emotions and relationships at the forefront throughout yet the band never obsesses so much over pedantic showcasing as to make any of the songs lose their whimsical and, at times, downright comical edges.
Each track upholds a consistent flair of sonic polish. Care was taken to ensure every snare hit comes down with a sharp snap. Every pluck of the bass is given room to expand and provide audible low-end support without muddying the duo’s colorful harmonies (of which either Anthony or Elyse can be found singing the higher range, thanks to the former’s still thriving falsetto, as heard on “Grudge.”) Without ever delving into the substance of Waves Within’s conceptual objectives, there’s no denying its broadcast-level quality and radio-friendly hooks that utilize easily grasped forms like the syncopated doo-wop style drumming pattern filling out both “Creating Mr. Wonderful” and “Someone to Break My Heart.”
Still, despite sharing this recognizable aspect of compositional foundation, the two songs sound nothing alike, thanks to differences in mix prominence, tempo, and frequency throughout both. Herein lies another praiseworthy trait of Polaris Rose’s work: the duo can lead listeners down a musically cohesive trail without resorting to mind-numbing repetition. The strength of a tried-and-true song structure reigns. Even so, sonic treats like the completely seamless transition between the first two tracks and the recurring out-of-key flatted 6thchord dangling “Bird of Paradise” between major and minor moods, for example, are sprinkled in just enough to set the music apart from forgettable chorus-centric pop hits. Again, these writing decisions are small but show an added layer of consideration toward how to dress up conventions of modern songs without simply drowning them in every wacky plug-in available. Not only that but even though Polaris Rose aren’t afraid to play with loud dynamics and bold tones as a way of emphasizing its rock-flavored roots, the band is equally unafraid to exercise restraint. A very reserved melody and legato swaying rhythm line the uncertainty-laden ballad “Killer” and a mostly acoustic-leaning guitar tone serves to support Anthony’s leading vocals on the album’s somber closer, “Wait Forever.”
These traces of musical forethought are noteworthy on their own but they speak nothing of the more direct source of creative surprise filling Waves Within. The many ways relationships can change have been touched upon by countless songs before these but Polaris Rose are willing to explore thoughts steeped in a severely more private light. While Elyse and Anthony aren’t playing with risqué material, there is definitely a sense of other risks being laid out in each of the eight different stories at hand. How often does one hear mainstream leaning songs that touch on feelings like extreme idealism (It’s hard creating Mr. Wonderful but I can see so much potential), fickle romantic interest (You walk on out that door and I’m in love just like before), and realized conflict avoidance (Bottle up a grudge and then pour it out when we are in pain)? Of course, possibly the most head turning of all the honesty on Waves Within, comes from the peppy and melodically uplifting tune, “Nightmare,” where everything that immediately follows the opening phrase is liable to incite awkward silence and-or shocked laughter from the depth of musical to lyrical opposition.
I had a nightmare,
that we got married and fell in love.
Four walls, a white fence,
it was the worst thing I could think of.
I just want to see other people
Give my life a new whirl
I just want to break up
and wake up right next to a new girl
–Lyrics from “Nightmare”
Sure, it’s not uncommon for people to want to pursue new relationships. However, while getting to hear the kind of admission every person in a committed relationship who’s ever been ghosted has been denied feels cathartic, “Nightmare” also echoes a notable air of intimacy. It’s one thing to write a country song about cheating, lying, and drinking to get over it but it’s another to unapologetically breach a feeling of fomented boredom and external desire. The sharp truth would be a lot more jarring if not for the disparity of the happy-go-lucky hook.
Ultimately, the sonic aesthetic of Waves Within doesn’t deviate significantly from Ocean Blue, Velvet Skies but just like the jump between that and prior release Telescopes, Polaris Rose have shown continuing linear development and satisfying refinement of the trajectory the duo has been crafting since 2013. It’s not often a band multiple records in can orbit their founding style and maintain a perception of freshness without resorting to a dramatically different focal point in subsequent releases to generate easy intrigue. Waves Within shows that Anthony and Elyse are steadfast in their concepts and that just like the occasional influx of temptation or frustration that can befall even the deepest of relationships, they haven’t chosen to waiver from what fuels Polaris Rose, even when the going gets rough.
Keep up to date with Polaris Rose through the band’s official website and these social media outlets: