The Philadelphia indie-rock scene that coalesced around Fishtown clubs like Johnny Brenda’s and Kung Fu Necktie in the mid-‘00s generated an abundance of excellent guitar bands.
The War on Drugs and Kurt Vile and the Violators have gained the widest recognition, around the country and the world.
But there have been plenty more, from freak-folk avatars Espers and American Primitive wizard Jack Rose (who died in 2009) to Frances Quinlan’s Hop Along to Lansdowne-born axman Steve Gunn, who’s based in New York but has deep connections to the scene.
All the while, Mike Polizze has played a central role. Shortly after moving to Fishtown from Delaware County in 2004, he began playing with Birds of Maya, a psych-rock three-piece with whom he established himself as a guitar shredder par excellence.
In 2009, Polizze started Purling Hiss, playing all the instruments himself at first before growing into a full-blown garage-rock band on a dozen albums and EPs, the most recent being 2017′s The Purling Hissterectomy and 2019′s Interstellar Blue.
But Polizze had never released music under his own name. That changes with Long Lost Solace Find (*** 1/2), the 39-year-old songwriter’s sun-kissed solo debut, now out on the Paradise of Bachelors label.
“Mike is the best ripping, rocking guitar player in Philly,” says Vile, who’s been an admirer and friend of Polizze’s since he first saw him play with Birds of Maya in 2004.
“This record rips in a more sensitive way, but it still totally rips. He puts out this fried Purling Hiss stuff, which I love. I love that band name. But he also does this sensitive stuff, which he delivers with as much as he does with the fry and sizzle. It’s this ballady, singer-songwriter thing, but still with licks that nobody can touch.”
The album initially sounds like a departure, but it’s really a natural progression. The hooks were there to be heard in Purling Hiss songs, often hiding behind squalls of shrieking guitar.
Long Lost Solace Find, which Polizze recorded and produced with Jeff Zeigler, peels back the layers of noise. Acoustic guitar is the most prominent instrument, and lovely, ruminative songs like “Wishing Well” and “Revelation” emerge like — well, like a revelation.
“It’s just clearing the smoke a little bit, making music in a more intimate, up-close sort of way” says Polizze, talking on the phone from Media, the hometown he moved back to with his wife, Nina, and their two cats this year, shortly before the pandemic hit.
Polizze played his first ever solo gig in 2015, opening for the band the Weather Station. He found the self-reliant experience to be freeing. The idea of making a solo record began to take hold.
“After a lifetime of making loud music, it feels like an inevitable thing to do,” he says. “There were a lot of pivotal things going on. Just growing older. And I got married a couple of years ago, and it changes your perspective. It just all made sense.”
The liner notes to Long Lost Solace Find were written by Brendan Greaves, the Paradise of Bachelors cofounder and former Philadelphian. He cites a Ben Franklin aphorism when he contrasts Polizze’s new sunshiny sound with his former fuzzed-out approach. “Hide not your Talents, they for Use were made. What’s a sun dial in the shade?”
Polizze is a multi-instrumentalist whose father, jazz sax player Michael Polizze Jr., put a music career aside to work as a jeweler. His dad died of cancer when his son was 14. “I still have all his jazz records” Polizze says. “I’m M.P. III. Maybe that should have been my band name.”
He took piano lessons as a child, then switched to guitar at 13, falling under the spell of Jimi Hendrix as well as ’90s guitar heroes like Dinosaur Jr.‘s J Mascis.
Shopping at Borders as a teen, he remembers thinking his tastes didn’t fit in as he held CDs by thrash-rock band Bad Brains, alt-rockers the Pixies, and the Grateful Dead.
That varied sensibility carried over to the music he made with the punky and jammy Purling Hiss (who still exist, Polizze points out).
And though it’s as a guitar hero that he’s best known — he burned down the house with the War On Drugs playing Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen covers during the band’s holiday shows this winter — he displays his full versatility on Long Lost.
On the album, he plays guitar, bass, percussion, piano, and organ — not to mention Marxophone, a type of fretless zither that Zeigler happened to have in his Uniform Recording studio.
On Long Lost’s “Bainmarie,” which contains the album’s title phrase, Polizze sings of using music as a salve to ward off the blues: “Finding the weapons to fend off all the brainhurt and befuddled minds.”
“Cheewawa” is a whimsical mood piece that conflates a tiny dog breed and a beloved Philadelphia convenience store chain. (Add it to a Philly indie rock micro-genre, along with harpist Mary Lattimore’s “Wawa By the Ocean.”)
All of the music on Long Lost not played by Polizze is played by Vile, who came by the studio one day and contributed to five songs — on backup vocals, Dobro slide guitar, harmonica, Farfisa, and trumpet.
Kurt Vile plays the trumpet? “That was the first instrument I ever played, starting in fourth grade,” he says. “I’ve picked it up various times in my life. I’m thinking of taking lessons again, actually.”
Vile is enthusiastic about Long Lost. “It gives me chills,” he says. “It’s definitely my favorite summer album. It’s full of hits. Any of these songs, you feel like you could hear them in a Wes Anderson movie.”
With easygoing rhythms and laconic vocals, Polizze’s music sometimes bears a strong resemblance to his friend’s. “That’s a compliment,” Vile says. “I think I influenced him and he influenced me. It’s all stuff I love, and I wish I wrote it. I love that song “Cheewawa.””
Polizze was meant to tour Europe opening for Vile this spring, a plan nixed due to the pandemic. “It’s scary,” Polizze says. “Music is canceled.”
But unlike many full-time musicians who have found themselves completely out of work, Polizze has always kept at least a part-time job to pays the bills. He’s currently working full-time at a book warehouse.
That means he doesn’t have as much time to work on his music as he might like. But turning himself into a solo artist has given him the discipline to be productive during quarantine in ways that he wouldn’t have been able to before.
“Working as a solo artist has taught me how to work by myself and to be studious and to record things as voice memos on my phone,” he says. “All that kind of stuff.
“I really miss playing shows with a band, and don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to go out and play loud music. But if I can sit at home and make music by myself like this, I’m going to do it. I’ve got lots of ideas.”