At first glance, Exit Wounds seems like a natural enough title for an earnest singer-songwriter’s third LP; that Paul Megna of the Oxygen Ponies learned to play guitar in the aftermath of a shooting that left a bullet permanently lodged in his neck puts the phrase in an entirely different light. This somber and shaded record can be said to be concerned with the emotional equivalent of Megna’s physical trauma — that is, the trauma of the wound unhealed, the crisis unsolved. So subdued is Megna’s expression of these concerns, however, that the album is left too inconsistently engaging to be enthusiastically recommended.
The Oxygen Ponies — in which Rhode Island native Megna plays the role of writer, musician, producer, engineer and sole constant member — have been releasing albums largely outside the mainstream since 2006. The last set of songs, 2009’s Harmony Handgrenade, was infused with its creator’s disillusionment with United States domestic and foreign policy. The righteous anger which fueled the songs conveniently compensated when the underlying architecture of melody and atmosphere began to wear thin. The result was a transitional record, built on grander and more organic arrangements than Megna had experimented with before. It seemed to bode well for future developments.
The newfound aversion to political songwriting displayed on Exit Wounds, however, has denied Megna his former safety net. The new album is quite transparently cast in the confessional singer-songwriter mold, which offers musicians a great deal not only in terms of emotional canvas but also in terms of compositional challenge. Nakedly documenting Megna’s frequently unhappy affairs of the heart, the songs found on Exit Wounds too often expose cracks in the songwriting, which are exacerbated by the album’s largely maudlin atmosphere and middling tempo.
No matter how delicately constructed their heavy atmosphere, and no matter how well-produced their soundscapes, songs like “Good Thing” and “I Don’t Want Yr Love” are ultimately hamstrung by the languid ordinariness of their basic structure. Similarly, Megna’s appealingly world-weary, rough-hewn voice cannot save “Hornet” from an erratic lyric weighed down by confusing mixed metaphors. Many of the basic parts from Harmony Handgrenade are present and correct, but, burdened by the emotional weight of his subjects, Megna seems to struggle to tame them or to produce from them anything more than their sum.
A trace of former glory is found in early track “Hope & Pray”, which almost drowns Megna out with a bright guitar line in its engaging chorus. The song clips along at the slightly more energetic pace that much of the rest of the record cries out for. Instead, this is but a lone relief from the mid-tempo tyranny of the rest of the album, which lingers on for almost an hour.
When it at last fades away, Exit Wounds leaves the impression that the writing and recording of its songs were a tough but necessary experience for Megna, acting as a sort of cathartic self-therapy. Such introspective analysis can make for entertaining music, but deficiencies in songwriting and the unremittingly subdued tempo and tone prove to be fatal to that possibility in this case. Perhaps Megna might be better advised to return to more socio-political material next time around; his anger is simply more engaging than his sadness.