Live: The Garage-Rock Wars
Ponys: sneaky fuckers
It's easy to ignore a band like the Ponys. For one thing, they sound almost exactly like the Dandy Warhols did way back before whoever picks TV-show theme-songs discovered the Dandy Warhols. It's a pretty uncanny resemblance: lots of reverb, big choruses, wispily detached vocals, unbelievably hot female bass player. Except the Ponys pull off that whole psychedelic-garage fuzzcruch without the Dandys' self-distructive Drugstore Cowboy heroin-chic glamor, a dubious proposition when you consider that the whole Drugstore Cowboy thing was the main reason anyone ever paid attention to the Dandy Warhols in the first place. The Ponys basically play fuzzed-out garage-rock, a genre that most critics haven't exactly rushed to embrace ever since the Vines single-handedly destroyed any credibility that NME might've ever had. I caught a few second of the band outside at Brooklyn's Atlantic Antic festival in 2005, and I don't remember a single thing about them beyond that bass player. Last night at the Bowery Ballroom, they didn't do a whole lot of anything onstage. Main Pony Jered Gummere barely says a word between songs, and he looks sort of like that one guy from Silverchair who looked sort of like Kurt Cobain. All four members stare off into the middle distance. Three of four Ponys hide their faces behind their hair, and the other one probably would if his hair wasn't too curly. If it wasn't for the cadre of doofuses in the audience who shot off Party Poppers and sprayed the band with Silly String throughout, last night's Ponys show might've been one of the most visually boring in recent memory. And I still left the club walking on air. When a band pulls off its retro-moves with such sublime grace, it doesn't matter much if they're a pastiche of a pastiche or if they don't bother to put on much of a show. The four Ponys build off each other's separate squalls with an almost psychic level of intuition, and they pull the right things from the right sources to work up some deeply satisfying surges of beauty. I could've watched them do nothing for hours.
Last night, most of the band's songs started out as simple, straightforward garage-pop: the rhythm section locking into a primal but jaunty groove, the guitarists responding with stark, simple riffs, Gummere singing meaningless lyrics in his nasally rough voice. But as soon as the groove had established itself, the rhythm section would in and keeps it moving while the two guitarists launched off into expansive, woozy tangents, wrapping spidery lines of treble around each other or vrooming into devastating abysses of space-rock noise. The end result felt something like what might've happened if Sonic Youth had spent the past fifteen years trying to perfect the comforting pop pleasures of Goo and Dirty and left behind their expressionist skree. The last time I saw a band do gummy warmth with this level of assurance, it was the summer of 2000, and Luna were taping their live album at the Knitting Factory. At the time, Britta Phillips had only just joined the band, but I didn't know that. Watching the band, I thought they'd existed together in that lineup for years and years; every member seemed to know exactly what to do to make the whole messy fuzzcloud sound better. The Ponys do all the little things in all the same unobtrusive ways. They've released three albums, and I'm already thinking I should've given the first two more of a shot. The new one, Turn the Lights Out, completely snuck up on me; its pleasures are all small and simple, but they all add up into something triumphant. I had to be locked into a room with the Ponys for an hour to figure out how much I liked them, and that's not their fault; it's mine.
Nobody could ever accuse the Ponys' openers, the Atlanta garage-rock quartet the Black Lips, of underselling themselves. Already embraced by the Vice/Fader cadre, the band brings a riotous rep as the country's most dangerous live band, a crew of drunken drugged-up knuckleheads who get banned from every club they play. Given all that, I was expecting the next Dwarves or some shit, but the band didn't do anything remotely ban-worthy last night. They pulled out all their attention-grabbing stunts last night: spitting in the air and catching it, playing guitar with their teeth, making out with each other, smashing beer-bottles over their guitars. And they still came off more subdued than their reputations would have you believe; even as they pulled out all their tricks, they looked vaguely detached from them, like they're now forced to dutifully pull all the same crazy spontaneous stuff at every show because that's what people have come to expect. A small group of people up front did their best to wild out to this stuff, but it fell way short of the sort of ecstatic insanity you see at every local Matt & Kim show. By indie-rock standards, this was still a pretty frantic spectacle, but expectations can be a bitch. If the theatrics were a little disappointing, though, the actual music wasn't. The Black Lips play swampy, slurry garage-rock, as catchy as it is indecipherable. Where the Ponys let R.E.M./Television jangle rise to the top of their songs, the Black Lips hide it under layer upon layer of staccato riffage and naggy singsong melody. That jangle is still there, but they bury it as deep as R.E.M. and Television once buried their garage thump. If you close your eyes, it's easy to imagine the Black Lips on mid-90s Estrus Records: they'd be wearing matching gas-station-attendant jumpsuits, one member would be bald, and they'd pose for photo shoots arranged around a vintage 50s Cadillac hearse held together with duct tape. But times are different, and bands like this one need to figure out new-old ways to make their names. In its way, the Black Lips' simplistic honk is just as intuitive as the Ponys' wide-open whoosh. If a band like this has to act like rabid stray pitbulls to get noticed nowadays, then that's just how the game goes, but it's hard to argue with songs as good as these.
Voice review: Debbie Maron on the Black Lips' Let It Bloom