Dig a Pony. Er, Ponys.
Just how starved is the North American public for some good, simple, guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll? Well, look at Jet, for instance. The ridiculous success of the Australian band boggles the mind, especially when you consider there are dozens of dumb bands like them doing the exact same thing. All it takes is one song; in Jet’s case, that being the lame, hackneyed “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?”, a brainless rip-off of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” and Phil Collins’s “You Can’t Hurry Love”. As irritating as that song may be, it does possess an undeniable hook (albeit a stolen one); today’s rock radio is so congested with tuneless bores like Nickelback and Three Doors Down, that the first song with a sense of fun and energy that is deemed playable by corporate owners is quickly lapped up by listeners. The White Stripes, whose album Elephant was middling at best, was met with baffling praise that bordered on outright worship, and even the UK’s The Darkness, a fun little band in their own right, has managed to score a hit Stateside. So there’s no question, the people are ready for rock music to return.
Although the average Kings of Leon and the overrated Mooney Suzuki have garnered some attention, America has yet to contribute a band who could equal something as energetic as The Hives’ Veni Vidi Vicious album. Until now, that is. The recent post-punk revival, headed by bands like The Strokes, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, and The Rapture, has yet to score the big, massive hit it needs in the US, so the timing for The Ponys seems just right. Although traces of darker post punk music like Echo & the Bunnymen appear in their sound, the Chicago quartet keep things much more simple than their peers; after all, simple is what the majority of the public always wants, and The Ponys do it remarkably well.
Laced With Romance, to put it simply, is the best garage rock album to come out in the past couple years, matching Veni Vidi Vicious step for step. As is the case with most brash young bands, classic guitar riffs are swiped blatantly, yet the band retains a distinctive, original sound throughout the album. Singer Jared Gummere sneers away, like a cross between Robert Smith and Joey Ramone. Gummere and guitarist Ian Adams slash relentlessly at their guitars as if they’ve spent their entire lives listening to nothing but Stooges records and The Velvet Underground’s classic “Guitar Amp” bootleg. Adams delivers frenzied new wave and soul licks on Farfisa organ, bassist/singer Melissa Elias sounds like a young Kim Gordon, with her charmingly tuneless voice, and drummer Nathan Jerde hammers sloppily; instead of propelling the songs, his drumming has the sound teetering on the edge at times, but somehow never collapses. Talented producer Jim Diamond, who has worked with the likes of The Dirtbombs, The White Stripes, and Electric Six, creates a layered, echoing, guitar-heavy mix that harkens back to The Jesus & Mary Chain.
The Ponys’ confidence is evident on “Let’s Kill Ourselves”: opening with the sound of a thunderous stampede (a brilliant touch), two wah-wah enhanced guitar riffs kick in, along with a persistent beat by Jerde, and when Elias joins in on bass, the band settles into a terrific groove, Gummere and Adams delivering a fantastic, staccato riff that’s more Lou Reed than Keith Richards, as Gummere howls desperately, “I’m full of rage/ The song of violence sings inside of my mind/ And it will tell me things about the pain of life/ And how the sad will die… sometimes I feel like killing myself.” The song’s energy, passion, and rage, not to mention its very catchiness, gives you chills, and if there’s one radio-ready song on this album, it’s this one.
Gummere displays a more playful, charming nature on songs like “10 Fingers and 11 Toes” (“I’m Tall and skinny and some people say I look pretty weird”) and “Little Friends”, a cute tribute to his pets (“They never leave me alone/ It’s always pitter patter on my floor/ Please fill up our bowls and can you maybe pet us some more”). “Fall Inn” begins with a shameless copy of the opening chords of “And Then He Kissed Me”, but then goes off in another direction, the guitars adding a Byrds-ish touch (I won’t say “jangly”), as Elias sings in her endearing monotone, punctuating each verse with a bubblegum style, “Do do do do do do.” Then there’s the dark, murky “Looking Out a Mirror”, dominated by Elias’s stuttering bass and Adams’ quivering organ notes, and the buoyant “Trouble Trouble”, which combines ‘60s soul with ‘60s garage much better than The Mooney Suzuki ever managed. Meanwhile, the band shines on heavier fare like “Sad Eyes” and “I Can Make You a Star”, as well as the sweet “I Love You ‘Cause (You Look Like Me)”, which makes you wish that Elias had sung more on this record than merely two tracks.
The album comes to a searing climax, as the band settles in and plays some intense, balls-out rock on the ferocious “Virus Human” and the cacophonous, six-minute closer “The Only One”, which ends in a display of howling, droning guitar solos by Gummere and Adams. Underneath all the rough-hewn sounds on this album is some real polish and songwriting skill, making for a refreshingly enjoyable listening experience, especially when compared to the empty, novelty feeling you get from a band like Jet. The Ponys are indeed for real, and Laced With Romance is one hell of an auspicious debut. It may not shake the foundations of rock music itself, but it will rattle your insides somethin’ crazy, and sometimes, that’s all you need.