[6 September 2005]
I Also Like the Music My Grandmother Likes
In a time when hipsters and the rock and roll youth seem preoccupied by bands with a “more the merrier” outlook on gritty guitars, synthesizers, and danceable beats, Ponies in the Surf are stripping their sound down to nothing. As a result, A Demonstration is slipping well under everyone’s radar. Well-crafted and powerfully quiet, these understated folk songs are characterized by spacious arrangements, hushed vocals, and lilting guitars (usually singular, as the sole accompaniment). Music this good and this quiet rarely gets the attention it deserves.
As Alexander McGregor remembers, it was during a “particularly ferocious noise band’s 20th minute of electro-feedback barrage,” that he hatched the idea for Ponies in the Surf. Disenfranchised with homogenous rock acts performing to homogenous crowds, he became determined to make music that would stand apart. So, while the world was preoccupied with bombast, McGregor slipped quietly out of New York’s side door, headed for Boston, and formed a band with his sister, Camille. Together, they make music their grandmother would have liked.
Although Alexander McGregor has performed in a number of bands of varying degrees of intensity, at heart he and his sister Camille are folkies from another generation. Originally from Bogota, Columbia, the duo shares a common musical bond that stems from their youth. As children, the two used to spend their days at their grandfather’s restaurant, creating imaginary worlds as they played. Often they would stop to listen to the house organist play his combination of traditional and current songs of the time. Alexander McGregor recalls that though the music itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy; it still left a lasting impression with both he and his sister. Those days of playful innocence have remained with them, and the childlike naïveté still informs their music.
The most immediately engaging aspect of the Ponies in the Surf debut is its simple beauty. Camille McGregor’s voice is young and graceful, and harmonizes beautifully with her brother’s. So much so, at times it is difficult to differentiate the two. Stylistically, they mine the best from Latin rhythms, ‘60s folk, and vocal standards. From these eccentric influences, Ponies in the Surf are able to pull together a cohesive EP of familiar and immediately accessible songs.
After the opener, “See You Happy,” Ponies in the Surf perform a sublime version of Linda Rich’s “More to Living” before stepping even further back in time to the ‘50s. “Ventricle” is reminiscent of the “cha-cha” dance and tinged with Latin rhythms. It is the absolute embodiment of A Demonstration. The siblings’ dueling vocals when they trade the lines “I love how you go to sleep / With the pillows on the right” is a simple, yet effective way to bring to life the feeling of being so smitten that the smallest idiosyncrasies are endearing.
Understandably, Alexander McGregor’s description of his music as “music my grandmother would have liked” isn’t going to make the record buying public clamor for the Boston-based duo’s records. Don’t fret. This isn’t your grandmother’s Kingston Trio record. While A Demonstration may sound a lot like an old 78 RPM that she may have played on a lazy Sunday afternoon, don’t expect to hear much Tommy Dorsey or Sammy Davis Jr., as the bio claims (you may, however, hear traces of Edith Piaf or Nina Simone). The old-time feel of the record is born as much from the lo-fi production as it is the musical styles. A Demonstration is just what the name may imply. The subtle white noise of microphones and the rattling strings of the old Stella guitar not only showcase the songs in their most basic form, but also lend an air of the antique—when mistakes and a little hiss peppered your favorite albums. The combined effect of the styles and production makes A Demonstration immediately inviting—like a record revisited after years of lying dormant.
Ponies in the Surf have released a second EP, Death of a Librarian, in the UK on I Wish I Was Unpopular Records. While the most engaging elements of their debut still remain, this outing features more sophisticated production as well as additional instrumentation for many of the songs. Some of the production on the catchier tunes may draw comparisons to Belle & Sebastian, but the style of this duo remains all their own. The newfound depth adds a layer to the already intriguing sound of Ponies in the Surf.
Both A Demonstration and Death of a Librarian are intimate and warming EPs. The quiet earnestness of both albums inspires the imagination to wonder to distant places and times, effectively calling to mind only the most pleasant thoughts. Ponies in the Surf have plans to release a full length album this fall—just in time for the season to turn to winter. If the current EPs are any indication of what is to come, this album stands a better than average chance of becoming my soundtrack to cold winter nights and many bottles of wine.