Retro Review: Polaris – Music from the Adventure of Pete & Pete (1999)

Matt Rushford, Living Arts Editor

As the trees get a little browner and everyone seems to wear a bit more flannel, it immediately becomes pretty clear to most that fall is getting closer. It’s already beginning now; when you walk into CVS they’re already advertising Christmas, let alone Halloween, and you’re already seeing kids wear denim in unseasonably hot weather. I probably shouldn’t be the one to break this to you, but it’s almost fall. 

For many of us, these are generally the first things that come to mind when we think of fall. But as I’ve thought about it more, fall to me is more than these simple descriptions of changing colors, but also representative of an important time for growth as summer ends and we begin to relook who we are as school begins. And to me, very few albums do as good of a job of encapsulating these feelings as Music from the Adventure of Pete & Pete by New Haven-based band Polaris. 

Polaris is the culmination of the work of frontman Mark Mulcahy, along with bassist Dave McCaffery and drummer Scott Boutier, all from New England. The three originally met in Mulcahy’s long-term project, Miracle Legion, which lasted thirteen years and ended with a label dispute. It’s important to recognize that Miracle Legion was a successful band respectfully in the late ’80s, becoming a notable group, particularly around the New England scene. Without this beginning, Polaris wouldn’t have formed. In 1991, the creators of the Nickelodeon show, The Adventures of Pete & Pete asked Mulcahy if he would like to serve as the house band for the show. He promptly agreed, officially forming the “fake band”, Polaris. The group created music for the show from 1993 to 1996, eventually releasing the soundtrack for the show through Mulcahy’s independent label, Mezzotint in 1999. 

Mulcahy’s lyrics on Pete & Pete vary from “kind of cryptic” to “very puzzling”, but overall Mulcahy provides sweet serene tracks throughout this album, mainly focusing on themes of unrequited love, jealousy, wasting time, and the malaise of an autumn day. The guitar throughout the album has similarities to other notable bands of the time period, such as Dinosaur Jr. and The Pixies, but they are more distinct as they focus on more chiming “jangling” guitar playing, focusing on strumming rather than a more dynamic wall-of-sound approach. 

A song that really encapsulates Polaris’ autumnal spirit is their song Hey Sandy, which was also the theme for the corresponding show. The song describes a routine conversation (“Hey smiling strangely / You looking happily deranged / Can you settle a sure bet?” which takes a turn to the aftermath of a tense argument (“Four feet away / End of speech, it’s the end of the day / But we were only funnin’ / But guiltily I thought you had it coming”). These lyrics of growth along with the incredibly catchy, rhythmic guitars really make me feel the complex themes I connect with the fall, unlike others.

Polaris’ eccentric vocals, interesting production, and peculiar samples try to give the listener a rush of nostalgia for childhood and the grasp for new knowledge through naivety. This search for childhood is deeply rooted in the show this album is connected to, but Polaris existed in a period of change in music. The show was created during a period in music when artists like R.E.M. and They Might Be Giants were beginning to reach major record labels, and artists influenced by these bigger names such as Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement began to come around. What helps Polaris stick out is although they are similar to some of these bands listed respectively, they were able to create an album that is truly distinct amongst its peers. 

Maybe it’s just me, but when fall comes around, it’s easy to get mixed feelings; a pinch of somberness and fear mixed with the catch of nostalgia and excitement that comes with the change in the air. Music from the Adventure of Pete & Pete highlights this mix of emotions with great detail, making it a must-listen over twenty years later.