Forget the parallels that have been made between Gina Villalobos and the best in alt-country music — Villalobos is the unquestionably the finest voice in the country-rock genre today. She is not a Lucinda Williams wanna-be, nor is she a Chrissie Hynde knockoff. The fact that critics are reaching into such considerable artistic territory to find fitting accolades for Villalobos is an indication of just how good she really is. Villalobos, if Rock ‘N’ Roll Pony garners the attention that it is likely to, is an artist that others will be compared to in the very near future.
Rock ‘N’ Roll Pony is a shining example of Villalobos’s melodic sensibilities; her knack for placing just the right words alongside just the right chords is sheer verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus bliss. But Villalobos is not just a phenomenal songwriter; her powerhouse voice is as original and distinct as her songs. Knowing when to whisper and when to unleash, she finesses words into new meaning with the slightest inflection. From the very first shimmering pedal steel cries on the opening track, “California”, to the brilliant lyricism of “10 Million”, we are truly swept away on a journey through life’s triumphs and hardships. Gloriously drenched in rich acoustic guitar, pedal steel, twangy electric guitar highlights and the occasional banjo, this is as perfect as an alt-country/Americana rock album gets.
“Not Enough” swaggers with not-a-care-in-the-world attitude, hearkening back to the mid-’70s freedom of bars, friends, music and the occasional smoke. Villalobos conjures up images of the best jukebox in town, ice-cold dollar beers, and nights that were never long enough.
The intensity of “Why” opens with distorted guitar chords and builds enticingly through Villalobos’s formidable vocal dynamism. When she howls, “Can you lift me up, without stealin’ / Droppin’ me down, into this feelin’,” the sheer power of her gritty, rangy voice propels “Why” into a plaintive, bordering-on-anger grind of a song.
Villalobos is not just a belter, however. In “We Got It Slow”, she finesses her way over subdued Wurlitzer and acoustic guitar, never once breaking a near-whisper. The result is a seductively intimate ballad that lingers in the listener’s head far after the initial listen.
“Fooling Around” is a driving song that starts off sweetly — deceptively, almost — and quickly develops into a playful-but-serious foray into the possibilities of desire, despite the fact it may not be the right thing to do.
“I’m Alright” offers up plenty of cheerful accordion and banjo, perfectly complimenting the upbeat optimism conveyed throughout. Villalobos’s chorus of, “Baby, it’s a strange situation / And it’s a strange way to find / Everywhere souls are created / So you’ve got mine,” is a lesson in hook-writing brilliance.
The languid shimmer of band-member Sean Caffey’s pedal steel guitar shines brightest on “Faded”. One could easily be sucked in to hearing only his pieces, if not for Villalobos’s stunning vocal work. Her cry of, “Has it faded / Did you misplace it / Or did you put it down?” is one of the most powerful moments in the album. Her raspy, plaintive delivery seeps with desire, sadness and anger, yet remains subtly hopeful.
“Trying To Find You” is perfect in its simple guitar/vocal delivery. Many artists would not have the foresight to let a perfect song remain so austere, so consummate in its unpretentious realness. The song is alive, with its microphone-captured breaths between lyrics and guitar-string squeaks. Once again, Villalobos’s musical sense is spot-on.
The closing track, “Can’t Come Down”, is a strong finish to the album. “I got 10 million truckloads of nothin’ / I just gotta find a place to put my nothin’,” is one of the most engagingly bittersweet turns of a phrase in recent memory. The song sends the album off with a melancholy bang. “Can’t Come Down” is a positively engaging outro, inspiring the listener to press play one more time… at least once more.
The fact that a talent of Villalobos’s caliber is still not a household name is a tragedy. With Rock ‘N’ Roll Pony, Villalobos has delivered a country-rock masterpiece that adeptly and enticingly rides the rails of both, with heartfelt country twang and dirty rock grit. Distributed on independent Kick Music, this album deserves to be snatched up by a major label instantly. Rock ‘N’ Roll Pony, halfway through 2004, is unquestionably the alt-country/indie album of the year.