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Kelley Polar: Viola Disco

Like virtually all musicians, Kelley Polar relies on playing live to pay the bills. But touring with his live band isn’t his only source of income; he regularly plays viola with the Apple Hill Chamber Players, who perform in war-torn areas such as Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

Despite his pastoral living situation–he resides on a farm in Sullivan, New Hampshire–Kelley Polar is perhaps uniquely suited to playing in troubled areas, as his music, and his musical career, has been rife with conflict of its own. Polar–whose real name is Mike Kelley, and whose sister is Blectum from Blechdom’s Bevin Kelley–had enough classical training to land him at Oberlin and Juilliard… and enough love for the wild life to get him expelled from the latter.

This tightrope walk between the diligence of composing and the dangerous hedonism of clubland characterizes Kelley’s sound. While studying at Juilliard in New York, he met nu-disco revivalist Morgan Geist, and appeared on his and Darshan Jesrani’s Metro Area record, peppering tracks like “Miura” and “Caught Up” with his skillful viola playing. This led to his first record, Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens, for Geist’s Environ label, a disco-inspired slow burner with plenty of classical strings and careful melodies.

Having retired to the countryside, Kelley now issues his second album, I Need You to Hold On While the Sky is Falling. From the deliberate delicacy of “Zeno of Elea,” which takes a minute and a half before any beats interrupt the layers of vocals and keyboards, to the resolutely rubbery uptempo funk of “Rosenband,” whose choppy synths threaten to spin out of control, the record shows an ambitious breadth of scope tied together by Kelley’s hyper-emotive singing. Echoes of disco reverberate through Kelley’s songs (though less so here than on his first record), contributing to a pervasive feeling of teetering on the brink of all-consuming decadence.

“An escape from the horrors of reality… can always be found in music–it’s both inherently decadent (it’s not feeding or clothing you, after all) and indisputably essential,” Kelley writes, when asked to comment on the skein of depravity that underpins his work.

Contrary to I Need You’s shiny, big-city air, the album was actually composed and recorded in his farmhouse cabin without running water. “I’m low-tech, but want everything to sound like [Stevie Wonder’s] Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” Kelley says. “So I work and think hard to try to improve my production and recording skills… usually that means things like remembering to turn the heating fan off while recording.”

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