From Entertainment Weekly to Newsweek, the national media has been rife lately with "return of alt-rock" articles, gleefully lauding a newish batch of left-of-center rock bands actually, you know, selling records. There's always a little wishfulness in these types of pieces. ("Yeah, maybe we won't have to pretend to like Matchbox Twenty and P.O.D. anymore!," you can almost hear the editors and writers exclaiming.) But this time especially, there's plenty of truth here, as a quick glance at the Billboard charts or a spin across the radio dial attest.
Though it's truly heartening to see Modest Mouse holding a Top 25 slot on the album charts more than three months after the release of Good News For People Who Love Bad News and to hear the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps" getting play on modern-rock radio (one recent local spin of the song transitioned from Karen O's lovestruck pleas to a mook-mouthed jock making jokes about his latest strip-club visit, so there's still more than a little Fred Durst in the format), these articles seem a little constricted, a little too indie-rock-tasteful in their selections.
One record that's missing is Laced With Romance by the Ponys, which might just be the best guitar-band debut of the past year. Yeah Yeah Yeahs aside, the Ponys are a little bit grimier and a little bit more forceful than the more musically polite bands (Postal Service, Shins, Death Cab for Cutie) getting return-of-rock ink. You haven't seen them on The O.C. or heard them on MTV2, and maybe never will, but this Chicago quartet is certainly one of the most compelling new rock bands around.
Laced With Romance is a bracing listen from the get-go. The lead track, "Let's Kill Ourselves," contains the kind of depressive lyrics the title suggests but juxtaposed with rousing sounds --a chiming-and-chugging dual-guitar attack, dance-worthy beats, yelping vocals that blend an entire generation of punk-era New York frontmen (Tom Verlaine/Richard Hell/David Byrne/Joey Ramone) --it becomes less suicide than exorcism, an excuse to pogo one's blues away.
Indeed, what's so refreshing and endearing about the band has as much to do with attitude and personality as it does with sonics. Laced With Romance was recorded for vaunted Los Angeles indie In the Red, a label best known for straight-up garage-rock bands such as Detroit's Dirtbombs and Memphis' own Reigning Sound. But, along with Memphis friends the Lost Sounds, with whom they'll share the stage this weekend at Young Avenue Deli, the Ponys are expanding the sound of the label. (The Lost Sounds make their In the Red debut next week with the EP Future Touch, to be followed by a full-length in the fall.) The two bands have been connected for far longer than they've been associated with In the Red, according to Ponys' singer/guitarist Jered, interviewed from a cell phone in New Hampshire en route to a show in Boston.
"I met [Lost Sounds members Jay Lindsey and Alicja Trout] in what was probably one of the first times they played out of town, in my hometown of Bloomington, Illinois. My band at the time opened for them. Then they hooked us up in Memphis, and we've been friends ever since. That was probably five or six years ago."
The Ponys recorded their first single with Lindsey and Trout and released it on Trout's Contaminated Records label. Since then, the bands have played together frequently, including In the Red's showcase at this year's South By Southwest music festival, where both bands stood out amid the more straightforward garage-rock bands on the bill.
The Ponys resist the garage-rock label in part because of a musicality that transcends Nuggets-style riffing (though "Trouble, Trouble" is a quintessential garage rave-up). Instead, they blend artfully entrancing guitar sounds with soul undercurrents and Phil Spector references. ("Fall Inn" borrows the intro to "And Then He Kissed Me.") But what makes the Ponys perhaps the underground "garage" band most likely to appeal to fans who don't read scene 'zines like Horizontal Action is an open-hearted, welcoming personality. This is illustrated by the seemingly irony-free and completely earned album title. But you can hear it in the self-deprecating wail of "Ten Fingers and 11 Toes" (where "I'm tall and skinny and some people think I look pretty weird" sets up "I know what I'd say to all those people walkin' by/Probably nothing at all, cause I'm kinda shy") and in "Little Friends," a sweet love song to house pets.
Apparently, this crossover potential is starting to pay off. The Ponys may not be trendy picks quite yet, but glowing press for Laced With Romance from the likes of Rolling Stone and The Village Voice has certainly raised the band's profile.
"It's really just now starting to pick up," Jered says. "We just toured the West Coast and now the East Coast and it's been going really well, so we're pretty happy about that. It's definitely a lot more fun to play when the room is pretty full as opposed to our first few shows, when there would be about five people. Of course, there are still towns where there are about five people there, so you can't win them all."