Unfortunately it looks like one of my favorite bands, Ponytail, is going on a hiatus, or maybe just plain breaking up. ( Ponytail Calls It Quits. ) I think it’s safe to say Ponytail was also one of the station’s favorite bands…we presented their show a little more than a year ago at the Echo.
I wrote something about their last album, Ice Cream Spiritual, for a class and never knew if I should post it anywhere…and if I did, what was the right time. I suppose there couldn’t be a better time to celebrate their music.
Running Down the Spanish Steps
“THIS BAND WILL SAVE YR LIFE.” My first impression of Baltimore band Ponytail was scrawled in sharpie on our college radio station’s copy of their 2008 LP Ice Cream Spiritual. That bold statement made me pull the CD out of our pile of new releases, and I stared intrigued at the cover art: a blue hand print slapped against a celestial design of Buddhist deities and technicolor finger paint. The album art and title seemed shockingly positive; I wondered if the band was actually sincere, or making the standard ironic statement so overused in indie rock. I would learn later at their live show how truly genuine the band is about creating transcendent, spiritual music. Yet unaware for the time being, I slipped the CD in and pressed play.
Before I knew what had happened the first track was over. You see, listening to “Beg Waves” is like running down a steep flight of stairs, say the Spanish steps: you propel through the air with the incredible force of gravity, unable to stop or breathe until you slam into the ground. The music’s intensity is near frightening until you embrace the delight of free-fall.
The song itself mirrors the task of running down a flight of stairs: including the “psyching up” beforehand, the euphoria of free-fall, and a final crash. First the layered guitar lines of Dustin Wong (Ecstatic Sunshine) and Ken Seeno arpeggiate out of silence, and drummer Jeremy Hyman adds an anxious hi-hat beat. Vocalist Molly Siegel hollers: “bbbbbbbbrrrrRRRAAHHH” (rough translation), the fearless sound Siegel makes when she blows through her loose lips.
Hyman then pounds his bass drum like a sugar-rushed heart beat. Soon Siegel begins clucking and cooing like a frenzied hen, and then lets out a kung fu yell before the song begins its epic plunge. Suddenly bouyant guitar riffs and tambourine replace the song’s earlier anxious feel, until building to the blissfulness of free-fall. Siegel screams as if she’s on a roller coaster, finally sustaining her wordless vocalizations until they (almost) sound like singing. The band reaches their enraptured climax, but soon furious bass drum and feedback pummel the song into a bloody, gratifying mess. Finally the outro comes, a dizzy concussion of electronic sounds that fade to black.
Despite the intensity of their music, the entire album maintains a sense of ecstasy without exhausting the listener, partially because Ice Cream Spiritual includes just nine short songs, and also because the band so effectively balances their vigorous power with moments of expansive peacefulness.
The album’s single “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came From an Angel)” is the only song longer than five minutes, includes the only clear chorus with decipherable lyrics on the entire album. Yet the band doesn’t sacrifice their sense of chaos for accessibility; the song is still full of unexpected mood-changes that contrast head banging pandemonium with pause of serenity.
The musical skill of the band is plainly obvious, yet there are no polyrhythms and odd time signatures, like those of similar bands like The Boredoms and Deerhoof. Ponytail seems to value the expression of innate emotions over showing off or making an intellectual statement. Rather the experimental aspects of their music come from a willingness to eschew conventions, such as traditional song structure, when such pretensions will simply get in the way.
Neither does Ponytail address the depths of human sorrow, but instead they embrace the aesthetic of Baltimore’s Wham City collective, with artists like Dan Deacon who spread joy better than Santa Claus. Ponytail combines their buoyant attitude with nods to surf rock, Japanese noise, art rock, and punk. Their impressive range of influences and similarity to veterans like the Boredoms, however, set me up for a surprise when I saw Ponytail in concert for the first time.
Because of critics’ comparisons between Ponytail and bands with decade-long discographies, I expected Ponytail to be in their thirties, and to have mastered indie rock PR like pros. Yet when they opened for High Places at the Smell, I stared in disbelief as a five foot girl, appearing not much older than seventeen, walked on stage (she’s actually twenty-two) wearing a baggy shirt and jeans. The rest of the band were also far from photo-shoot-ready; the boys weren’t wearing plaid shirts or even skinny jeans. My friends and I giggled at how they looked nothing like most of our rock idols, but rather like some geeky college students. They looked like us.
The band opened with “Beg Waves,” and Siegel prepared herself for her vocal entrance, crouching silently with her legs bent outwards like a baseball umpire. Then a smile spread across her face until she looked utterly goofy, and her eyes rolled backwards into her head. When she sang she began to jump and flail her limbs, looking as enthusiastic about her band’s music as any embarrassing fanboy.
I watched Siegel’s infectious mania and felt an exhilaration overcoming my body. I looked anxiously at the front of the crowd—I had always wanted to join the unrestrained and frantic delight of the mosh pit, but was afraid I’d get hurt, and even more that I, a tiny and unthreatening girl, would look out of place.
When the band launched into “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel),” I grew inspired by Siegel’s own eschewing of expectations: despite her size, she was more powerful than any six foot male I’d ever seen. I finally catapulted myself into the crowd. I crashed into some strangers who smiled right back at me, and together we all lost our heads to the blissful delirium of Ponytail’s music. We bounced off of each other to increase our own energy, occasionally giving an amiable push. Soon my face mimicked Siegel’s demented smile.
No Ponytail did not “save my life,” but my life didn’t really need saving either. Instead the band gave me a moment of freedom through sound. Afterwards I began to redefine what I wanted from recorded and live music: transcendence. I left the concert trying to catch my breath, body sore, ready to toss myself down the Spanish steps all over again.