Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Ponys, Turn The Lights Out

The Ponys
Turn The Lights Out (Matador)
Grade: B+



(The Ponys, "Double Vision," at Schubas in Chicago. From Pitchfork)

If The Ponys ever host their own game show, it would have to be called “Spot The Influence.” Actually, a Ponys hosted game show would be a terrible idea. This is because there are, in essence, only two influences in The Ponys' sound - 60’s garage rock and the 80s and 90s shoegazer scene (think of Ride’s early EP’s).

In the hands of most bands, a sound like this would probably be the recipe for derivative disaster. It's quite impressive, then, that Turn The Lights Out - The Ponys third album and first on Matador Records - manages to be a solid rock record with more than a handful of catchy songs. This in spite of the fact that, as you're listening, you can rattle off the names of all of the bands to whom The Ponys are deeply indebted.

The odd thing about this Chicago-based group is that they can manage to be imitative and fresh at the same time, and sometimes even in the same song. For example, take the opening track, “Double Vision.”

The song features a simple two-chord progression that has ancestry in the very best of 60s garage rock. But that's not the only appealing aspect of the song. The pronounced bass line of “Double Vision” helps give "Double Vision" a little more harmonic shape and the backbeat helps toughen it up a bit, but not to the point where the band engages in tough-guy posturing.

So far, so good - if not exactly original. And then, the shoegazing part comes in. The last forty seconds of “Double Vision” becomes a frenzied session of frantic guitar solos and fuzzy guitar and bass riffs. As I was listening, I wondered why The Ponys waited until the song was almost over to take their playing game the next level. Better late than never, I guess.

A lot of Turn The Lights Out follows this very same pattern. The songs start out as tight little numbers, with simple beats, riffs and thuds before branching out into little mini-jam sessions of squawking feedback. Unlike Sonic Youth, a band whom The Ponys emulate semi-frequently (most notably, Jered Gummere cribs Thurston Moore's vocal stylings), The Ponys end up reigning in their potentially self-indulgent tendencies to bring the songs back to their original musical motifs ( “Small Talk” , “1209 Seminary" , and the aforementioned "Double Vision" are all good example of this songwriting formula).

And therein lies why Turn The Lights Out is, at times, not as satisfying as it could have been. The Ponys, for better or worse, refuse to explore any opportunity to really stretch out a song and mess around with it.

I imagine that the argument for why being concise is better could be that the songs come in at a short running time and always manage to get stuck in the head of whomever may be listening.

This is all fine and good, but don't tell me that when you listen to a song like ( “Poser Psychotic,", you don't hear the potential for some seriously mind-blowing sonic squalor and feedback.

The song practically starts out declaring its admiration for Goo on its sleeve. But unlike Sonic Youth classics like "Dirty Boots" or "Mote," "Poser Psychotic" doesn't really go anywhere. The intro is one that suggests mass panic and chaos through its noise (uh, the good kind), but then the rest of the song only offers complacency, albeit complacency that's really catchy.

If The Ponys want to make an outstanding record, and not just a really good one, they should learn to trust themselves more. They need to write six and seven minute songs where they can just completely go off their rocker. Make sure to allow only a few catchy garage-rock numbers in order to prevent things from getting too art-rocky.

It will be then, and only then, that The Ponys will make a record that isn't just an inspired hodgepodge of their influences, but rather, a classic album in its own right.

(Jonathan Graef)

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