With “indie rock” wallowing in self-consciousness and annoying twee-pop, it is with relief that one realizes the utter lack of pretension that characterizes an Ass Ponys album. This second album into a post-major label renaissance that has seen them produce their best work provides ample proof of their natural progression into a kind of alternative-universe country rock.
From Cincinnati, Ohio, the Ass Ponys take no small inspiration from fellow Midwesterners Pere Ubu, but instead of a postpunk poet’s neo-industrial musical junk show, they take their slightly off-kilter sensibilities and brand them onto music that is part Band, part Stones, and part R.E.M. It is arms-akimbo hoedown music for pop culture addicts, and sweeping, sonorous odes to simple pleasures-one song is even titled, “Kung Fu Reference,” and there is a heartfelt paean to “Donald Sutherland”.
Like all truly great bands, Ass Ponys can do several things well. “Only” is a cracked country boot-kicker, but it is followed immediately by the vaguely psychedelic tones of “Fire in the Hole”, which could pass muster on a Flaming Lips album from a few years back. Their versatility extends to the instrumentation as well, with guitarist Bill Alletzhauser employing a handful of electric and acoustic choices including banjo and vibes, bassist Randy Cheek doubling on a Mini Moog and a short wave radio (??), and drummer Dave Morrison including ‘utensils’ among his selected percussion instruments. Singer and main songwriter Chuck Cleaver has no stranger instrument than a ‘Jaw Harp’, but his voice is a unique instrument unto itself. Like David Thomas from the aforementioned Pere Ubu, Cleaver’s throat emits some odd noises in the name of singing, but it all seems to fit the band’s method of musical madness. He can sound weird and wacky (“Baby in a Jar”) or pensive and pastoral (“Calendar Days”) as the tune requires, a versatile prerequisite for a group like Ass Ponys.
That last statement pretty much says it all, “A group like Ass Ponys”, because there really isn’t another one out there quite like them-in Lohio — wherever that is — or anywhere else.