When a band puts out a very strong debut album, as The Ponys did with Laced With Romance a year ago, it’s easy for some casual listeners to act jaded and unimpressed if the second album lacks the immediacy of the first record. That way of thinking is completely unfair, but with a song as potent as “Let’s Kill Ourselves” was, it’s obvious that more than a few fans were hoping the Chicago band would do more of the same thing on their new CD. Hell, even yours truly was. I loved that song.
So when a band who made their mark playing some of the most energetic garage rock-meets-post punk we’ve heard from an American indie band in the last few years comes back on their sophomore release with a more subtle, less primal, dare I say, “nuanced” piece of work, well, it can be a bit deflating at first. Plus, although Celebration Castle happens to be produced by none other than Steve Albini, who, along with producing innumerable great albums in the past, is responsible for one of the best-sounding albums of 2005 in High on Fire’s Blessed Black Wings, this new album lacks any of the visceral punch many of us had expected. While some admirers of the band might bristle at the thought of a more understated Ponys album, Celebration Castle turns out to be a very fine piece of work in its own right.
It’s a grower, that’s for sure, something immediately noticeable on the dark, brooding intro to the opening track, “Glass Conversation”; instead of the thundering stampede that opened “Let’s Kill Ourselves” (seriously, one of the best song intros ever), we get the more tightly wound sound of Cure-like guitar harmonies by Jared Gummere and Ian Adams. Albini has the band smoldering instead of exploding, and that new dimension does wonders for the band’s sound. Most importantly, the rhythm section of bassist Melissa Elias and drummer Nathan Jerde is greatly solidified thanks to Albini’s involvement.; the drumming was one of the weaker points on the otherwise excellent Laced With Romance, but here, the screws have been tightened considerably, Jerde’s beats much sharper than before.
“Another Wound” resembles a cross between the Los Angeles Paisley Underground sound, R.E.M.‘s early work, and The Cure’s late 80s output, as a stripped-down, jangly guitar is offset by simple second guitar melodies, Gummere’s voice greatly resembling Robert Smith more than ever. “Discoteca” is the one track that most resembles the previous album, and is great fun, the glam-infused riffs bolstered by Jerde’s percussion. “We Shot the World” is the band’s most brooding composition to date, the most obvious post punk tune on the record, as Gummere and Adams engage in some gorgeous guitar interplay, while Jerde delivers a sparse, insistent beat that evokes Stephen Morris’s work with Joy Division.
As good a lead singer as Gummere is (weird voice and all), Adams serves as a good foil to the band’s frontman, his songs more indebted to 1960s garage rock than to post punk. His two songs on Laced With Romance were a couple of that album’s highlights, and his two tracks on Celebration Castle are just as good. The quick, upbeat, shamelessly retro “I’m With You” is dominated by chiming guitars and Adams’ charmingly androgynous singing voice, while “Shadow Box” boasts a chord structure similar to The Velvet Underground, circa 1968, before taking off into a coda of Sonic Youth-style dissonance. Elias, meanwhile, handles lead vocals on “She’s Broken”, and does a terrific job, singing with all the forcefulness of Kathleen Hanna, minus the grating screech. Unfortunately, Adams has since left the band (he’s been replaced by Brian Case), and although his contributions to the Ponys sound will be greatly missed, the Ponys are good enough to carry on with Gummere at the helm.
Celebration Castle is not the incendiary piece of rock ‘n’ roll that Laced With Romance was, but while the new record is more controlled, more versatile, that fire is still present, especially on the fittingly-titled closing track “Ferocious”. Thanks to a year of touring and the engineering skills of Albini, the Ponys are a much tighter band, and thanks to this confident follow-up, any thought of a backlash from indie music geeks has been quelled. That is, until the next record comes out.