“Whatever happened to Ass Ponys?” I asked a friend of mine from Cincinnati, the Ponys’ home turf. This was about a year ago. “I don’t know,” she said. “I think they dropped off the face of the earth.”
Well, not exactly.
But the Ponys have been out of commission for a while. Five years has passed since their last record, The Known Universe. The Ponys’ drive for success was thwarted in part by A&M’s poor promotion, in part by the eclectic nature of their music, and in part by their name (“We figured we’d change it later and never have”) and the title of their first major label single, “Little Bastard,” which precluded airplay on many stations. Whereas the members of Uncle Tupelo, another defunct Midwestern country punk band that started about the same time, have gone on to critical renown in Wilco and Son Volt, Ass Ponys have been, in the words of singer-lyricist Chuck Cleaver, “stewing in our own juices.”
So it’s nice to see the this solid new album on Chicago’s Checkered Past Records. Some Stupid with a Flare Gun is pretty evenly divided between up-tempo rockers and ballads. Lyrically, there are a few oddities. “X-tra Nipple,” for instance (Scatman Crothers / He and I are brothers / He’s got an extra nipple / And I’m fascinated”), and the robot fighter in “Magnus”—which opens with a nod to the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” Mostly, though, Cleaver focuses on the lives of the down-and-out. There is the dirt farmer’s wife in “Sidewinder,” who’s “Wasting her life / But other than that she’s doing fine,” and the waitress in “Swallow It Down” who counts on generous tips that don’t always come through. Cleaver walks a fine line between optimism and pessimism; as he sings in “Fighter Pilot”: “I must admit that I don’t see a bright tomorrow / Still, I will also confess that my hopes are fairly high.” This might well be Ass Pony’s credo. The people in these songs have been kicked around, but like the Ponys themselves, they haven’t yet given up.
Ass Ponys made enough of a splash in the mid-‘90s to register on the corporate radar screen, but their signal has obviously faded since then. Some Stupid with a Flare Gun is worth your time, though, and if you can’t find it in the stores, ordering information is at www.checkeredpast.com.