[9 October 2013]
Strange name, Tired Pony, with its suggestion of both youth and weariness.
Then again, maybe the band has earned the right to feel weary. There’s a lot of experience in this supergroup of aging-hipster faves. Start with Gary Lightbody (Snow Patrol), Richard Colburn (Belle & Sebastian), and Peter Buck (R.E.M., of course), and finish with Scottish singer Iain Archer, Irish producer Jacknife Lee, unofficial R.E.M. guy Scott Lewis McCaughey, and Troy Stewart, and you’ve got a whole lot of pedigree for one band. It seems only appropriate that this ensemble stays clear of the playfulness of Snow Patrol and Belle & Sebastian for reflective, downbeat, sometimes downright depressed romantic Americana.
Conventional wisdom says the supergroup is never as super as the sum of its parts (sorry, Them Crooked Vultures), but give Tired Pony credit: this lineup sounds comfortable and natural, less of a side project and more of a focused unit. What they’re focused on, though, seems to be aging, loss, the futility of relationships, and the acceptance of pain, mostly delivered in pleasant, mid-tempo alt-pop that takes too few sonic chances for such an electric group of alt-types. These guys are too talented to play a bad note, and there are many delights on The Ghost of the Mountain—moments of gorgeous musical transcendence and stunning lyrical work that you’ll want to put on repeat. But the merciless introspection and troubled relationships that pepper the album wear you down after a while. Tired Pony does a beautiful job tapping into that quietly desperate haze of failing romance and soft existential crises, but that’s a tough place to stay for a whole album.
The opener, “I Don’t Want You as a Ghost”, is a nice start, a paean to commitment and maturity (“I just want to be the man you come home to”) with an effectively simple 1-4 progression. And “I’m Begging You Not to Go” expands on the theme, nicely updating “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with dreamy melodies and some Okkervil River-like lyrical imagery. “Begging” is strong, wistful, and romantic—heck, I’d even welcome another verse.
Things quickly take a turn for the bleak, however. “Blood” has a welcome, driving beat, and lyrics like “Here’s a thought / How about we both say what we mean” provide some passive-aggressive nods of recognition, but look at the titles coming up: “The Creak in the Floorboards”, “Wreckage and Bone”, “The Beginning of the End”. Lightbody and the boys are in some mood—relationships are dying, the sun is setting, and, as they’re constantly reminding us, they’re getting older.
This is all well and good—resignation needs a soundtrack, too, and it’s not like I expect them to sing about trashing hotel rooms—but I wish some of this music had a little more bite. “The Beginning of the End” and “Punishment” cut loose a bit, allowing us to snap our necks a bit to downers like “This is the coming of a new kind of love / That breaks your heart for good / It’s the beginning of the end of your life” and “We’ve reached the end of our golden days at last.” But more typical is the plaintive “Wreckage and Bone”, which gussies up some mid-tempo folk guitar with slide guitars and drum loops as it offers a heartbreaking look at either denial or dementia. Follow that with the post-last-call misery of “All Things at Once” and the mid-tempo (again) “Carve Our Names”, which may well be about willingly drowning in the sea rather than facing another day of aging loneliness, and Jesus Christ, can we do what Lightbody once suggested and just lay here and forget the world for a bit?
Special guest star Minnie Driver (hey, why not; their first album featured Zooey Deschanel) makes a great impression—she and singer Kim Topper add enough sweetness to help this medicine go down. If you’re looking for a sonically adventurous Peter Buck, though, you’re out of luck—while a few tunes take advantage of his impressive pedal collection, he mostly blends into the ensemble. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but if this set could use anything, it’s a bit of joyful noise, especially since the closer, “Your Way is the Way Home”, teases us with hope before turning, finally, toward the bleak (“These years have humbled me / And I know it’s too late”).
But I’m criticizing the album for being uncompromising, and that’s not fair. If you’re looking for good, occasionally great, mature music about facing the end, The Ghost of the Mountain is a damn fine choice. There’s something to love about just about every track. Just keep your copies of Eyes Open and Monster handy so you can take a little rock-out break.