When people use the term “revisionist history”, it’s usually in reference to something bad, accusing the one doing the revision of sweeping something under the rug or trying to lessen the negative impact. Those who deny certain historical atrocities, for example, are painted as “revisionists”.
Not all revision is bad, however; take the Ass Ponys, for example. Most people will remember the Ohio band, if they do so at all, for their oh-so-brief moment of pop culture glory with the quirky near-hit “Little Bastard”, from the improbable major label disc Electric Rock Music. Before that, however, the band released two quirky, ragged discs on tiny Okra Records that offered, well, American rock music that was equal parts garage rock, folk, country and, for lack of a better term, alternative. Someone at A&M Records obviously heard something in these discs, for while it seemed as if everyone was getting signed to major labelsin the mid-1990s, the Ass Ponys’ signing seemed a bit of a head-scratch-inducing leap.
Those two discs, 1990’s Mr. Superlove and 1993’s Grim, are gathered, more or less, on the new two-CD set The Okra Years. More, because the set includes a handful of covers and unreleased tracks that weren’t on the original albums. Less, because only 19 of the 28 tracks originally released on those albums made the cut. Here’s where the revisionist history part of things comes in. The band simply chose to reissue the parts of the discs that it liked. As singer-songwriter and head Ass Pony Chuck Cleaver writes in the liner notes: “I’ll begin by offering an apology to anyone who’s pissed that we’ve left a few things off. The simple fact is that we don’t care for some of them anymore. So… Goodbye.”
For the most part, the band’s revision presents a better version of the Ass Ponys than the band’s few fans from that era might remember. Gone, particularly from Grim, is the muddy production that made finding the hooks in some of the band’s songs an expedition of sorts. Gone, too, are some of the weaker tracks from Grim.
The result is a collection that better amplifies the band’s strengths. Hardcore fans can argue the choices, but what Cleaver and Co. have created is a testament to the power and majesty of the pre-major label Ass Ponys. That power is derived from deceptively simplistic guitar picking, ambling rhythms, and Cleaver’s high-pitched yelp of a voice that is not unlike the sound Michael Stipe must make when seeing himself in the mirror on mornings when he forgot to take off his stage makeup the night before.
In fact, the R.E.M. reference, while likely tiring for the Ass Ponys to see, is apt. Much of this sounds like the R.E.M. of Dead Letter Office, that band’s late ‘80s collection of funny, tossed-off b-sides that were often the equal of its more thought-out and structured album work. In the case of the Ass Ponys, however, that sound is its more thought-out and structured album work, as far as that goes.
At its best, Cleaver’s music mixes twisted tales of people on life’s margins told through absurdly humorous, economical tunes that sound like rhyming versions of the urban legends recounted at a party after the beer starts flowing. There is Grim’s “Azalea”, about a several-hundred pound man who kills the teenage careworker who spurns his advances, or the tale of Mr. Superlove‘s “Hey Swifty”, about a young man who is, it turns out, not terribly swift after all.
For fans who have wondered about the truth behind such strange stories, Cleaver offers some clarification in the liner notes. “Azalea”, for example, is Cleaver’s version of something he heard on the news, taken to its illogical end, while “Hey Swifty” is simply about “just boredom and hanging around… mystery solved.”
While the trimming of some tracks from the original albums helps to present a more streamlined product, the band made some questionable choices in its revision. Ultimately, Grim loses seven tracks (six, really, if you ignore the seconds-long spoof “Big Rock Ending” that opens the original disc), including inexplicable omissions “No Dope No Cigarettes”, “High Heaven”, and the goofy but definitive “Not Since Superman Died”, and adds Mr. Superlove‘s “We All Love Peanut Butter” and two covers: an overlong take on “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Go-Go Kitty”, a garage rock obscurity recorded on a boombox. At 55 minutes, the disc could have accommodated such “bonus” material and the better original songs left behind.
Mr. Superlove adds three tracks. In the liner notes, Cleaver says he’s not sure why the first, “Is It Blood?” was left off the disc in the first place, but that it “beats the hell out of say, ‘California Bingo’,” one of the tracks left off from Grim. He has a point on that one. However, it’s not better than one of two Mr. Superlove tracks left off, “Ford Madox Ford”, a hilarious track about “the fattest poet who ever lived”. Its absence isn’t explained and it is sorely missed.
The disc also adds “Some Kind of Fun”, a sweet, catchy tune with actual harmony singing that is an early (and better) version of a song that eventually showed up on the band’s second and last major label disc, The Known Universe.
The last addition is the band’s cover of Pere Ubu’s “Not Happy”, a track that shows the influence that veteran band had on the rest of the Ohio rock family tree. It’s easy to hear the David Thomas in Cleaver’s fluttering vocals when given such a clear example, and the Ass Ponys show the obvious debt they owe Pere Ubu for blazing the offbeat path out of Ohio two decades earlier.
One thing the two bands share is an expansive back catalog, a fluke major label hit, and an enigmatic frontman. The Ass Ponys’ obscurity is highlighted on “Not Happy”, which features a recording of band member Dave Morrison calling local people randomly to ask what they think about his band covering fellow Ohioans Pere Ubu. One woman, after hearing Morrison explain things, sums up both bands’ place in pop culture perfectly: “I’ve never heard of ‘em.”
The Okra Years won’t change that, but you can’t fault them for trying.
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