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The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ponytail - Do Whatever You Want All the Time!: B+

Trying to sound as least pretentious as possible, allow me to explain to you how it feels to be a singer in a rock group jam session. The jam session is a method through which the musicians of a group can warm up and experiment with ideas; steady rhythms and interminable repetition create an environment excellent for creative flow or just playful showing off. While this is an optimal setting for fleshing out musical schematics, it does not leave much room for a singer, whose job at the basic level is to sing over a group’s arrangements. So, in a jam session, the singer tends to be left out of the proceedings and, as a result, through desperation to be part of the process, a vocalist may sing melodies based upon nonsensical words that only vaguely adhere to the key in which the group is playing. Essentially, it’s vocal improvisation, and I haven’t heard a single case when it didn’t sound awkward or detract from the jam session’s purpose.

The lead vocal work of Molly Siegel on Baltimore quintet, Ponytail’s, newest album, Do Whatever You Want All the Time!, very much reminds me of that kind of predicament. A groove will be set by a standard set of guitars, bass and drums, but any momentum or dynamic established would be immediately decimated by Siegel, who will squawk a miscellany of syllables with little care for tempo or tune. Do Whatever You Want sounds like what would happen if someone gave the sound engineer’s 3-year-old daughter the mic during a jam session but then proceeded to lose her for a forty-minute recording. Rarely does this vocal approach sound appropriate within the album’s context and it always causes the album’s songs to drop in quality to some extent. More than anything else, Do Whatever You Want sounds painfully imbalanced.

This is a great shame, because the musicianship on display in Do Whatever You Want is fantastic. Lead guitarist Dustin Wong spins elaborate threads of six-stringed melodics while drummer Michael P, bassist Jeremy Hyman and other guitarist Ken Seeno keep up, excellently. Whether it be through the math rock of album opener, “Easy Peasy” or the fluttery bass of “Honey Touches”, the guys of Ponytail are proficient enough in their instruments that they could convey that sense of wide-eyed cheerfulness if Do Whatever You Want featured no Siegel at all. The album’s song titles also seem to be thought up by that little girl let loose in the studio, but make no mistake: these are professionals at work, bobbing and weaving like the best jam bands that ever were.

There is one moment on Do Whatever You Want in which Siegel proves to be an asset to the group, resulting in the album’s high point. “AwayWay” begins with business as usual for Ponytail until the group slows down halfway through the track. With a slow buildup, Wong and Seeno deliver shimmering guitar lines when Siegel, out of nowhere, sings and repeats a wordless but concise vocal melody, upon which the track then slays. That moment shows that Siegel isn’t incompetent, just misguided. I can only hope that Ponytail can let their guard down enough to allow themselves to utilize such a conventional songwriting technique as logical vocals in the future.

Your enjoyment of Do Whatever You Want All the Time! largely depends on your tolerance for Siegel’s singing. I am a huge fan of melodic death metal, so ignoring obnoxious vocals has become somewhat of a regular practice for me. I can enjoy the fantastic musicianship enough to give the album a solid B+, but, if you are easily annoyed, avoid this thing like the plague. There are moments in songs like “Flabbermouse” and “Tush” when Siegel isn’t featured, only to come barreling into the mix with her insufferable gibberish, so the inconsistency will probably frustrate you more than anything else. Do Whatever You Want is going to seriously piss some people off by its inherently polarizing nature, so looking into it is definitely a risk. I’m still debating with myself about whether going through with that endeavor is all that worth it.


An Horse - Walls: B+

If Walls isn’t the transcendent bastion of coming-of-age adolescence that An Horse intended it to be, it is certainly an indication of the Australian girl/guy duo’s potential to write at least a few songs akin to their ambitions. The songs of Walls are spritely when they need to be and somber when appropriate. Singer Kate Cooper has a precocious voice that bounces along to Damon Cox’s instrumentation with a strangely Brooklyn accent. It comes out when she pronounces those “r”’s in “Dress Sharply”, and gives Cooper a distinct personality on the album, whether that flair was intended or not.

Walls is abound with signifiers of young adult friction like obligatory “Twin Peaks” references and songs about airports. The arrangements are often rudimentary, but when Cox accompanies Cooper’s erudite lyrics with instrumentation just as incisive, the results are exemplary, as on the thumping album highlight, “Trains and Tracks”. Walls is peppered with some great one-liners, and, even when Cooper talks about that airport, she sounds clever and self-aware. “We could count all the planes at the airport,” she sighs in the gentle “Windows in the City”. “But that would mean that you and I were in the same spot.” Unfortunately, Walls features too much inconsequential filler, but, its highlights show that An Horse may yet have their best days ahead of them.