As you hear the soft panpipes, electronic whizzes and Molly Siegel’s vocal coos at the beginning of “Easy Peasy”, the first track from Ponytail’s new record, you might wonder if these artsy Baltimore spaz-rockers have suddenly gone the way of their old tourmates High Places in the year since they essentially called it quits. Two minutes in, the guitars arrive and kick things up a few notches, yet Ponytail still bear as much resemblance to whimsical indie as to their previous crazy selves. Ice Cream Spiritual (2008) was special and underrated, an album of unbridled brawn and multicolored explosions just as rock was trending softer and loopier. But touring for that record took its toll on the band, and after their shows racked up more accolades than you can shake a stick at, they decided to stop performing in 2010 and left their future open to speculation.
Do Whatever You Want All the Time is a surprise to those who thought they’d seen the last of Ponytail as a going concern. The title apparently comes from a line that Siegel sang in an earlier song, which seems odd only in that she mostly doesn’t sing actual words, but wordless shouts and ululations that indicate she’s being shaken by her own band’s music. If her Sue Tompkins-meets-YaSuKo O. voice was the star of Ice Cream Spiritual, Do Whatever You Want All The Time is guitarist Dustin Wong’s show. He actually made quite the splash on Ice Cream Spiritual, ripping his guitar to shreds in the bright, harmonic-heavy style he employed as one-half of Ecstatic Sunshine, but over time he’s attempted to diversify the things his guitar can do. In the process, he’s become tamer and, in my opinion, less exciting. Wong released a long and varied solo record called Infinite Love right around the time Ponytail threw in the touring towel. The influence his guitar playing has on his bands is as subtle as a hatchet, and for all its cool effects and nice melodies, Do Whatever You Want All The Time mostly just reprises Wong’s Infinite Love with more instruments.
There’s cohesion among the members, and there are chops on display—all the musicians sound professionally trained or at least very well self-taught—but as Ice Cream Spiritual demonstrated beautifully, you can sound highly skilled while going nuts if you’re good enough (see also: Melt-Banana). The label is billing this as a more experimental and sophisticated affair, once again produced by former post-punk luminary J. Robbins, but although the band plays around with neat new sounds and structures (like the centrifugally sped-up guitars at the start of “Music Tunes”), there’s a sagginess about it that suggests Ponytail really are worn out from performing. Siegel has pulled back her vocals somewhat, and this time you can actually hear her speaking English, which is slightly disappointing. “Experimental” and “sophisticated” are often code words for “lackluster” when they come directly from the label, and while that isn’t quite the case for Do Whatever You Want All the Time, it’s close.
“Honey Touches”, the album’s shortest song, does the best job of doing what the band set out to do, which was, I think, to make mellower music with the same thrill of Ponytail at their spasmodic best. Siegel yelps like a third grader playing capture the flag, the guitars hop up and down through several catchy sections, and the drumming—always Ponytail’s most underappreciated element—does a fine job of creating gripping buildups. “Flabbermouse”, on the other hand, is uncharacteristically garden-variety indie rock, and “Beyondersville//Flight of Fancy” is a real eye-roller, elevator music with beats. The rest of the songs have their appealing moments sidling up against the lamer ones. Ironically, Ponytail have become something they never were when pumped the volume to 11 and spun around like sugared-up Tasmanian devils: annoying. Ice Cream Spiritual actually looks like the more sophisticated record, and the one with more candy-coated draw for listeners.
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