Turn the Lights Out
n his review of Celebration Castle, the Ponys last album, Justin Cober-Lake began his review by asking, “Is it okay to like a band less when they get better?” He was talking about how the band had gotten tighter, but more so about how their sound was more polished. Turn the Lights Out is the cleanest and most professional-sounding Ponys release to date, but the difference between it and Celebration Castle is that now the band just thinks they’ve improved rather than actually becoming a better band. Sure, they’re shinier and tighter and less derivative, but they’re no longer obvious or delirious or gritty or fearless. They’ve taken soma and cleaned up their act.
Turn the Lights Out begins decently enough. “Double Vision” packs cocky swagger to the hilt, with jaunty guitar riffs dividing a rebounding bass and metronomic drums. But the opener explodes when Gummere ditches his newfound effeminate intimation and switches back to a strangled yelp, howling the chorus, “Let me take you down / To another place” with snotty gusto. The fun continues with the frenetic jolt of “Everyday Weapon” and the smoky pub flavoring of the title track, which begins with bluesy sneer but bursts into an anthem when the band drunkenly screams “In the middle of the night!”
But the rest of the album is a flat gin, no fizz. Though the band has very audibly begun leaning towards some of the early-‘90s guitar style of Jesus and Mary Chain and Sonic Youth for this effort, they’ve watered it down so that it retains few of those bands’ charms. Many of the riffs are repetitive and worth little after initial listens, such as the lame Brian Jonestown rip of “1209 Seminary” or the wannabe cool of “Harakiri.”
Even so, the guitar is a minor flaw: the gorilla in the room on Turn the Lights Out is Gummere’s changed vocals. The Ponys were often criticized for his singing, which too often aped David Thomas, Richard Hell, and Tom Verlaine. But Gummere’s voice had its own charm, and for a band that was barefaced about what they listened to, it was a forced and useless accusation. “Poser Psychotic” should be a template for why singers should stop listening to their critics. Gummere sings with the authority of a toddler, and his newfound acclimation towards wistfully hitting wrong notes is pathetic. Dude should stick to what he knows best.
There’s nothing wrong with professionalism; for many bands, it’s a necessity. But far too often, the Ponys try to act professional and the shoe doesn’t fit. The only moment when the spacious production (by John Agnello) and resigned contemplation of Turn the Lights Out really gels is on “Small Talk,” when a simple chord progression and merely a half-yelp by Gummere coalesce into college-rock nirvana.
I recently went back and listened to Celebration Castle again and it’s great, easily much better than the first time I heard it. At the time, many people thought that Steve Albini’s production perhaps worked to the band’s detriment, sacrificing their grime and battered-radio glory. But Albini, as usual, made the right move. Instead of making it filthier, as he typically would, he cleaned the sound up and pushed everything forward, loudening it up, and battering the speakers. Even when the guitars were dreamy and floating into the sun-streamed clouds, it was so up front that the band’s energy was never lost. Turn the Light Out scales everything back—the drums, the guitars, the vocals—leaving us with a clean-cut, grown-up Ponys, trying to get comfortable in their own skin when they were just fine in someone else’s.