A stellar group of backing musicians, including members of R.E.M., Belle and Sebastian, Editors, and She & Him, isn't enough to overcome bland songwriting on this disappointing effort led by Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody.
Listening to Tired Pony's debut album, The Place We Ran From, a collaborative effort featuring members of Snow Patrol, R.E.M., Belle and Sebastian, Editors, and She & Him, it's hard not to ponder what makes each of these immensely talented groups so enjoyable: Snow Patrol has corned the market on sensitive Brit pop filled with subtle hooks and sweet, minor-key melodies; after several decades, R.E.M. is still the best at crafting infectious jangly rock anchored by blissful harmonies; Belle and Sebastian, too, relies on gorgeous vocal harmonies, as well as twee, acoustic balladry that manages to avoid being too precious; a delicious stew of angular post-punk and soaring pop has been Editors' successful recipe since their debut in 2005; and She & Him, the project of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, is all about stark, cute, lo-fi gems that rattle around in your head for days.
I bring up all this because whatever it is that makes these artists so special and their music so powerful is pretty much absent from The Place We Ran From. According to the press release accompanying the album, Gary Lightbody, frontman from Snow Patrol, organized Tired Pony as "a twisted love-letter to the [United] States," inspired by bands like Wilco, Lambchop, Smog, and Calexico, among others. However, the resultant work rarely sounds like any of these groups. The Place We Ran From is filled mostly with pretty-sounding, pastoral, acoustic pop songs vaguely reminiscent of the recent work of Snow Patrol yet ultimately lacking the energy and catchy melodies of that band.
Album opener "Northwestern Skies" is built around three chords played over and over again by an acoustic guitar. The song gradually builds up steam as accordion, percussion, and layers of guitar are added. This is the arc that most of the songs on The Place We Ran From seem to follow. It's not that exciting, and over a full album's worth of music, this pony does indeed get tired. Lightbody and company rarely display any of the dark, intricate charm that characterizes the work of Wilco, Lambchop, or Smog.
The lyrics on The Place We Ran From also leave something to be desired. They seem to aim for a depressing, gothic place but end up sounding trite and silly: "I am a landslide / Waiting to fall / I'm a landslide, don't you know / I throw out my arms wide / In my heart, I know / It was always to be so / I'm a landslide, don't you know," coos the singer on the folky, Sufjan Stevens-esque ballad "I Am a Landslide". To be fair, if you are fan of Snow Patrol, then, like me, you normally get all gooey inside over Lightbody's romantic odes. However, on The Place We Ran From, the lyrics are too contrived and seem to push Lightbody's own limits for melodrama.
While the majority of The Place We Ran From could be relegated to background music for a low-key yoga session, there are a couple memorable songs on the album (which makes one wish Lightbody and his chums stopped at an EP instead of insisting on a full-length record). "Dead American Writers," the fastest song on the set, does touch nicely on Americana. However, its soaring guitar chords, sing-along choruses, and lead slide guitar seem more indebted to Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen than Wilco and Smog. "Point Me at Lost Islands", the album's first single, features some lovely background harmonies from Deschanel and an achingly beautiful fiddle line -- it's the closest Tired Pony ever gets to the heartland of America.
The Place We Ran From isn't necessarily an album you should run from, but it will appeal only to the most ardent Snow Patrol fans. Everyone else might be more satisfied by downloading "Dead American Writers" and "Point Me at the Lost Islands" and pulling out those classic R.E.M. albums.