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Wild Ponies

Things That used to Shine

(Ditch Dog; US: 10 Sep 2013; UK: Import)

Review [4.Oct.2013]

A pleasant mix of undemanding Americana

Wild Ponies run the gamut of styles from folk to Americana to alt-country, stepping deftly from easygoing swing to Crazy Horse-ish rattle-and-thump to the plaintive sentimentality of traditional twangin’ country (which has little in common with Nashville’s silky-smooth version of the same). It’s an impressive range, and one marked with confidence and panache, but in general, the band is more successful (read: interesting) when they inject a little more muscle into their compositions.


The band is built around the Virginia-born brother-sister duo of Doug and Telisha Williams, with Jake Winebrenner on drums and a number of backing musicians. Sweet-voiced Telisha also plays bass and keyboards, while Doug sings on a few tracks and contributes guitar. A capable stable of musicians fleshes out their sonic palette, but the defining factor in most of these songs is the voice, either Telisha’s sweet, slightly wistful tones or Doug’s more rugged, straightforward delivery.


The album kicks off with what is probably the strongest track, a downtempo, quietly angst-ridden stomper called “Make You Mine” that channels more than a little 1970s Neil Young in its guitar crunch and heavily reverberated echoes. There are plenty of bands that seek to recreate Crazy Horse’s shambling grandeur, but this outfit does so especially well, and with Telisha’s unaffected vocals oozing longing and hurt above the mishmash, the song achieves something very close to greatness.


It’s a shame, then, that this painstakingly crafted, sounds-sloppy-but-is-actually-tight approach is soon set aside for other, sleeker types of craftsmanship. Follow-up tune “The Truth Is” is a bouncy little number that swaths its cynical lyrics in an easily digestible pop nugget, while “Trigger” is a female revenge fantasy that somehow feels lightweight, notwithstanding its pointed lyrics.


Although Telisha sings on this opening trifecta of tunes and, thus, establishes the tone of the band to some degree, Doug contributes lead vocals to the gentle swing of “Things That Used to Shine”, “Valentine’s Day” and “Massy’s Run”. Coincidentally or not, these tunes, especially the first two, are among the most by-the-book traditional on the whole record, in terms of instrumentation, melody and structure. They’re also sentimental as hell (again, particularly the first two). That’s part of the tradition too, of course.


Doug also offers up an album highlight on penultimate tune “Revival Wasteland”. Over glittering guitar twang, fiddle accents and swooping pedal steel, he delivers some sort of laconic statement of faith: “I’m not sure I believe in God, but I guess he believes in me”. It’s an unguarded song that eschews all the easy sentiment of earlier tracks like “Things That Used to Shine” or even Telisha’s heartfelt but somewhat twee ode to her grandmother, “Iris”, and its toughness points up the easiness of those other songs.


Such sentiments are in the ear of the beholder, of course, and many listeners may number these tracks among their favorites. Certainly, the musicianship on the record is impeccable, with the siblings’ twinned voices on many songs providing a level of sonic depth that exceeds what either could have done alone. This is by no means a bad record, and the band has moments when it conjures genuine excitement. For the moment, though, they remain only moments.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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