Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Album: Ponytail - Do Whatever You Want All the Time

Do Whatever You Want All the Time (Ponytail)
Album: Do Whatever You Want All the Time
We Are Free, 2011
Rating: ******** (8/10)

Honestly, until this week, I never thought Ponytail could get any more awesome. The young experimental foursome from Baltimore has already released two genre-defying masterpieces of manic guitar work capped with strange yelping vocals. Despite being arty to the point where "avant garde" seems only appropriate, the band has won not only critical acclaim but loyal fans who love the band's affirming, youthful rush.

But this time, Ponytail have truly outdone themselves. First of all, their new album is called Do Whatever You Want All the Time, which is one of the greatest album titles of all time. It captures the essence of Ponytail's kaleidoscope-pop universe, one where social conventions (such as don't yelp like a strange little dog into a microphone in front of hundreds of people) and musical conventions (such as choruses, verses, melodies and chords) are banished and not just the band, but everyone, can be free. Honestly, this album would be a rare accomplishment for its name alone - but we don't need to debate that point, because as it so happens, the music lives up.

Do Whatever is certainly the band's most measured release - while 2008's Ice Cream Spiritual had listeners hanging on for their lives, Do Whatever drifts through clouds of sound. Out of this technicolor haze shoot glimpses of the untamed, unbridled guitar and drums of previous Ponytail albums. Opening track "Easy Peasy" builds gently, shimmering guitar finally giving way to an anthemic near-melody.

This song in turns gives away to "Flabbermouse," a light-handed baroque jaunt - and I mean baroque literally, with the high, winding guitar lines actually recalling the golden age of the harpsichord (mid 1700's, yeah?). Frontwoman Molly Siegel's vocals at times trace the outlines of the guitar line, which is the closest we've ever heard her get to singing. But like any Ponytail song, "Flabbermouse" doesn't stay still for long, veering sharply into what sounds like a very abstracted pop refrain, before falling away into a starry cascade of guitar.

"Honey Touches" has Siegel tenaciously declaring unintelligible syllables with such conviction that her meaning is perfectly conveyed without language. (It is possible that she's actually saying something that's easily understood, but I can't figure it out and I don't need to to get the message). Under Siegel's more solid intonations, the rest of the band also hews a firmer foundation. But still, they never hold still, shifting between wide open chords and their more characteristic burbling fountain of guitar.

The whimsically titled "Beyondersville/Flight of Fancy" sets out with an equally whimsical soundscape of chirping electronics that despite their electronicness, recall nature more than anything else; the instruments flutter and beep in faithful imitation of birds and crickets deep in some imagined rainforest. As the song progresses through its six minute lifespan, the fauna in its soundscape gradually find their sonic footing, locking in with one another, alongside increasingly bold drums. But the song never reaches a climax, instead relaxing in its own peaceful haze.

The trance, however, is broken by the bombastic, prismatic "AwayWay," which sounds more like Ice Cream Spiritual than any other song on the album (with the possible exception of parts of "Easy Peasy.") The song's arrangement drops the volume after a minute though (Ponytail never stand still), building it back from the ground with embracing, heart-on-the-line harmonies and dual less atonal and more supertonal or even pretonal vocals from Seigel and (I think) mad guitarist Dustin Wong. "Tush" follows on similar terms, a vibrant celebration of barely-contained glee - though I suppose that description fits all the band's songs. Midway, a faint melody recalls African pop - not the co-opted Afrobeaet of certain Bands that Shall Not Be Named, but more like legit Juju music with its almost banjo-clean high pentatonic guitars. Of course, it just as quickly slides away from this and into a twinkling pool of sound.

The album's closer, the aptly-named "Music Tunes," starts with Siegel's primordial calls, sliced through by a razorsharp guitar. The song's tension slacks into a strange electro-bass-slung hammock, with Seigel's cries this time seeming to gradually embolden instruments as they pick up both tempo and volume. The song and album close with something reminiscent of (are you sitting down?) a melodic (!!) riff (!!), once again with the spirited repetition of a refrain. The drums continue to build until they reach a breaking point and explode into frenzy. And then, abruptly, the album ends.

It's hard to say whether this album is better than the band's previous efforts. For those who loved the exhilaration of the sheer speed of Dustin Wong's guitar might find reason to be disappointed. On the other hand, those seeking on a more general level a liberated, liberating, color-drenched art-pop, Do Whatever cannot fail to dazzle. While many experiments in music have been defined in terms of "post" - postpunk, postrock - Ponytail's music is best described in terms of "pre." The band seems to exist in that childhood state before the discovery of inhibition and the fall into the entrapments of habit. Elements of Ponytail's music evoke a childlike state not only on an individual plane, but also in the sweep of human experience - the joyfully thudding drums, the prelingual whoops, the twittering guitar. In both its title and its music, Do Whatever invites us to go back to a time before the first time we felt embarrassed, or on a cosmological scale, to a time before Adam and Eve chowed down on that apple. It's an exercise in the liberation of joy and the joy of liberation and a document of the human spirit and the spirit of youth.

Granted, it's a document made by four young musicians in Maryland - it's flawed and well, it won't satisfy your soul on every existential level for all time - as the last paragraph might have implied. But it will make you smile. And that's a heck of a start.

The album is out today!

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