In The Red
s it okay to like a band less when they get better? That's what I'm going asking myself right now while listening to the Ponys' second album, Celebration Castle. Last year's debut, Laced with Romance, was one of the year's best rock records, with its single "Let's Kill Ourselves" destroying any chance listeners might have had of staying in a comfortable pop mentality, begging for trashed living rooms and legs worn out from excessive jumping. Celebration Castle wants to be all of that, but it wants to be well-done in the process.
This album, produced by Steve Albini, sounds more pristine, and the songwriting and performance skills are there to match. Where the debut sounded like a drunken nihilist romp, Castle sounds like an artistic presentation of a drunken nihilist romp. What was pure rock has become music with a sound, with specific influences (the same as Franz Ferdinand's), and a knowledge of craft. The rank (in both senses) amateurs have turned pro.
And honestly, as much as I want to praise strictly emotional, all-out rocking, I'd hate to see an artist stunted, playing the same bourbon blasts repeatedly. So I'm feeling like a parent now, proud that my kids have grown up, but sad that they've passed from the carefree world of youth into the (sort of) working world.
Despite the growth, the Ponys have mostly maintained the energy. "Glass Conversation" opens the album with a guitar strum that would have fit in on the Walkmen's Bows and Arrows. Compared to "Let's Kill Ourselves," it's not an exciting way to open an album, but we need to move past this whole compared-to-the-great-debut thing, because it's a good song, not exactly aggressive but hard.
The band's managed to merge a slew of influences into a sound that's mostly theirs, and is completely consistent from start to finish. There's a bit of Detroit garage (Jim Diamond produced their debut), a larger degree of post-punk, a certain brooding DIY indie, and even some blues (see their recent appearance on Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough). No matter that I don't hear any real stylistic similarity, I can't help but think that the result is music that Iggy Pop would highly approve of.
The highlight of all this comes right in the middle of the album with "We Shot the World," a slow, paranoiac number that works a slow grind steadily into your chest, accompanied by the snotty vocals of Jered Gummere and Melissa Elias. The next track, "Shadow Box," keeps the haunting vibe, but adds a dirty, excitingly irritating guitar solo. This music doesn't invite pogoing, but it does draw you in.
"Discoteca" follows as a slight release. Now you're free to bob your head and wriggle around. This is a song about what "feels so good inside." It's about time we get one of these numbers, letting some of that pent-up frustration out in a healthy manner, but it's really just a lead-in to "Get Black." Gummere sings, "Saving all my pennies up / Trying to get some cigarettes / But that's the way I gotta live." Back to the dirt, the streets, and, more important, the big guitar hooks (and don't forget the harmonica solo). It's a summer pop single for people who hate summer pop singles. Still got some hate to burn? Then just join Elias in the chorus of "She's Broken," which is "Ohowhoawohowhoa!" and the best shout-along moment of the past few months. Yelling the nonsense and sweating to the messy guitar will make you feel all better (without making you "better" for it).
The feel of "Get Black" pretty well encapsulates where the Ponys are right now: capable of the huge riffs, but more interested in colors and tones than they had been. They were a good band with incredible intensity; now they're a very good band with a slower-burning but equally intense energy, and they've got the craft to get that across more sensibly.
Sometimes I don't want sensible in my rock; sometimes I do. Now the Ponys have given me one record for each mood, and I don't keep the volume down on either.