Go ahead and add Ponderosa to the list of post-2000 bands that sound like they might be recording their albums in echo chambers. I am not speaking metaphorically. Ponderosa’s Pool Party has the reverb cranked so heavily that it sounds like it was literally recorded in a cave. I don’t necessarily mean this statement as a dismissal of the Atlanta-based outfit’s sophomore LP. Bands like Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes and My Morning Jacket are all vying to be crowned Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Reverb Rock. Pool Party often comes off as Ponderosa’s attempt to throw on the gloves and step into the ring for their chance at echo-laden glory.
If one were to situate Ponderosa’s latest effort next to the others, it likely would recall a more electrified Fleet Foxes. Sure, there are plenty of jangly acoustic guitars on the record, but for the most part, Pool Party is predominately a distorted record that lacks the discipline to celebrate the folkier elements that were almost assuredly included on demos for the record. Unlike others of their ilk, Ponderosa has a tendency to include epic psychadelic freak-outs complete with synths and sporadic drumming at the end of their songs (“Here I Am Born” and “The Nile” are representative examples from Pool Party that use this decision), a move that would probably persuade die-hard fans of Fleet Foxes to pass on Ponderosa.
The title track on Pool Party has glimmers of ‘90s power-pop that used to fit nicely on soundtracks for movies marketed to sexually pent-up teenagers (the song would almost assuredly be chosen for a key scene in a sequel to Can’t Hardly Wait). Much like the rest of the record, there are non-narrative (yet still cinematic) qualities to the lyrics found in the song: “We wake up passed out in yards / On your floor, backseats of cars / Find a bed and never sleep / Awake at night and steal the sheets.” The now-ubiquitous ambiance produced by sustained and distorted guitars works nicely here, but the guitars distract the listener from investing in the lyrics that grace the song.
Things slow down quite a bit on Side-B of Pool Party, and that’s certainly a good thing. On this half of the record, sounds become more focused and the band hones in on creating atmospheric sounds that accompany sentimental lyrics. “Heather” is a hazy, slow ballad with very nice vocal harmonies and is perhaps the album’s most pleasant song. With lines like “Oh, how I’ll never be quite the same,” it’s hard not to interpret the song as a sludgy, psychedelic ode to some of the great ballads addressed to women with a specific name in the ‘70s.
“Get a Gun” includes a few industrial elements, putting to use electronic drums and harmonized vocals that show that blending contrasting sounds can reap many rewards for Ponderosa. “Cold Hearted Man”, the album’s closer, is a capella for almost the first third of the song. Spare guitar picking and a bass drum keep the song from going off its tracks (even though one expects that it will, it stays sedate throughout).
The release of Pool Party provides further evidence that something like a formation is solidifying in indie rock among bands who are using reverb in such a sustained, deliberate way. Ponderosa show a lot of promise on Pool Party, but it’s obvious that they’ll need a few more rounds in the ring before they will be considered serious contenders.