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Photo: Jennifer Kelly

Ponytail + The Pains of Being Pure at Heart + Rabbit Rabbit

(26 Apr 2009: The Iron Horse — Northampton, MA)

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Ponytail make an odd pairing, no question about it. Both are much hyped bands whose names start with the letter “P”, both are on the bill this evening, both are, in their ways, quite good. But those ways are so different that the show becomes almost a case study in song structure versus untrammeled experimentation, classic pop versus spazz-shocked math rock, simple eighth-note strummed arrangements versus violent pyrotechnics of percussion and dual guitars, solid, capable performance versus ecstatic speaking in tongues. I’d give it to Ponytail if I had to name a winner, but it’s rare that two bands succeed so well on different terms.


Before that, though, there was Rabbit Rabbit, a home-grown band fronted by curly-haired Louise Chicoine, whose weird echoey vocals ranged from little girl chirps to wild keens to soft melodic murmurs. Behind her, on drums, is Jeremy Dubs from the Bunnies (and before that the Bennies); his guitarist Jack Godleski has come along on synth. Dubs is a fixture in the local music scene, despite the fact that due to a severe birth defect he requires a wheel chair to get around. In every other of his bands, he’s been the singer and lead guitarist, but here he is in the back, flanked by bassist Lynelle Lefferts and guitarist Jason Lavoie. Rabbit Rabbit is almost finished when I arrive, but there is something unsettling about their music, a luminous, phosphorescent glow in the surf guitar figures they play, a menacing, post-Expressionist gloss on their poppiest melodies. They close with a cover, “Sea of Love”, a chirpy, raspy, mad-child’s version, sung over the faintly decadent wavers of tremolo’d keyboards. Perhaps it adds to the whole unhealthy aura that Chicoine is dressed, neck to knee, in a white dress, tracing ghostly supplicant gestures with her hands, bobbing her head to the beat. On a small sample, I’d say Rabbit Rabbit is very odd, but sort of intriguing.


The Pains of Being Pure at Heart set up quickly afterwards, with the core band—Kip Berman on guitar and vox, Peggy Wang on Keyboards, Alex Naidus on bass and Kurt Feldman on drums—augmented with a second guitarist. That turns out to be Christoph Hocheim, just around for the tour. He normally plays in Depreciation Guild with Feldman.


A young, largely female, prettier-than-usual crowd has materialized by this point. One tall languid girl with asymmetrical hair has draped herself across the speakers in front. Other young women are knotted in groups around the stage. Freud was always asking “What do women want?” Well, apparently, it’s actual songs, tinged with romantic longing and chimed out on fuzzy guitars, and not too much nonsense about it.


Which is exactly what Pains of Being Pure at Heart delivers.


The set includes most of the best material from the band’s self-titled debut, with the radiant buzz and drone of “Contender”, the euphoric bash and swoon of “This Love is Fucking Right”,  and the hard-rhythmed, honeyed call and response of “Young Adult Friction”, all coming in the first handful of songs. No one in the band is especially demonstrative, Berman hazarding an occasional shoulder high slash at a power chord, guest guitarist Hocheim double-timing the rhythm parts with a casual flick of the wrist, bassist Naidus bouncing along at the bottom, a measure on one note, another measure on the next. There is nothing very complicated about these songs, nothing showy, but they come across as all the lovelier for their modest trappings. You notice during “The Tenure Itch” that no one in this band ever takes a solo, but there are instrumental intervals where everyone in the band is pounding away at the same rhythms, same riffs, in a sort of full-band solo.


By “Come Saturday”, about mid-set, I am finally hearing the Smiths comparisons that other writers talk about. There is something slightly fluttery and ornate about Berman’s vocals, though not much of Morrissey’s bitter irony. While smart enough—here is a band that sets its romantic tryst songs in the library and worries about tenure—there’s nevertheless an innocence, a falling-in-love-for-the-first-time starriness about these songs. Gentle rains of warm guitar notes, lazy bumblebee bass lines that just clear the ground, unstoppable melodies—it all joins together in a platonic ideal of pop, a simplicity that sounds as if it’s always been there.


Pains tries out a new song called “103”, due out this summer on seven inch, one of those halt-on-a-dime melodies where the music parts like a curtain and Berman and Lee speak-sing the title in the gap. There’s a romp through “Everything with You”, another song I don’t know that assures everyone that “We will never die” again and again.  (If it were true, you could probably just say it once.)


There’s not much banter, or band interaction, limited movement and only the most workman-like displays of skill. What, then, accounts for this warm feeling of having seen something great? The songs, I think… and that’s enough.


You get a sense of Ponytail even while the band is setting up, guitarist Dustin Wong carefully laying out a set of six different effects pedals while his counterpart, Ken Seeno, does the same on the other side of the stage. In the back, Jeremy Hyman, the drummer, is testing an expansive set of drums, with multiple toms and timbales, woodblocks, tambourines, bells and cymbals. Just from a tentative drum roll, you can tell he could probably play scales and melodies on his drum set and maybe, given a chance, he will.


The focal point of Ponytail, though, has nothing much to set up. That would be Molly Siegel, who holds sway over the middle part of the stage, bobbing, writhing, howling, hooting, shrieking and communing with the difficult riffs and rhythms that the band throws at her. Comparisons with Deerhoof are a start, but Siegel is far wilder, far less chained to lyric and melody than Satomi Matsuzaki. You get the sense that she is moved in every performance in a slightly different way, and what might, tonight, be owl hoots and seagull cries might turn to monkey chatter or tribal chant on another occasion.


The set begins unexpectedly. You half think they’re still setting up when a looped guitar figure emerges out of the stereo, accelerating as it repeats, whirling on itself faster and higher until it dissolves into pure agitation. It becomes pure noise just before the band jumps in, two guitars and drums clashing in an aggravated, asymmetrical, neurotic funk punk riff. Consider Pere Ubu’s clatter-trap funk lines from The Modern Dance, then push them through a metal shredder, and you’re about halfway there.


Oh, and did I mention the motion? It’s constant. Siegel dances hard, throwing herself up and down with the beat, bending over the mic, then leaning way back away. It’s a cross between aerobics and a religious fit of ecstasy. Dustin Wong plays extraordinarily fast and high on his guitar, his skill for shreddery multiplied by the fact that he is simultaneously marching in a high-kneed quick-step. Though Siegel takes most of the vocals (or vocally-produced sounds), Wong also sometimes steps to the mic, contorting his voice into growls and shouts and triumphant blots of sound.


The enthusiasm, the sense of motion, would be enough, but this is also an incredibly capable band, working in off-tunings and weird timings, yet maintaining an ineluctable, body-moving beat. There is no silence, no pause, no relief in these compositions, yet the frenetic activity somehow converges in a sort of trance. There is spiritual transport in the middle of the step class, illumination in the masses of machine tooled sounds. You are not in the least looking for a quiet place in the middle, but sometimes, you find it anyway.


So there’s the evening, the soft, uncomplicated attraction of songs that, like the love that inspires them, are “fucking right”, or the weirdly transporting chaos of Ponytail’s constant motion. Or maybe, if you’re lucky and cognitively flexible, both. You could do a lot worse than a little of each.

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