Live, their music is total spastic bliss. A complete sugar high freak out. Smiles all around - like Christmas morning, riding roller coasters, triple dips. But it's not easy to emulate the spirit and energy of the Baltimore foursome's live show on CD. Yet the outcome of this, their second release, truly embodies the spirit of the band's live gigs. Complex yet pop, raw yet refined, heavy yet sweet, "Ice Cream Spiritual" needs to be blasted while standing.
Review by Heather Phares
The wild trill Molly Siegel lets loose at the beginning of "Beg Waves" lets listeners know that Ice Cream Spiritual! is unmistakably a Ponytail album, even if it's more neatly groomed than their debut was. Kamehameha introduced the band's highly concentrated, highly combustible noise-punk-pop in saturated outbursts; it sounded like someone threw a few mikes into the fray and then got out of the way of the band's blazing onslaughts. Ice Cream Spiritual! sounds much more produced and premeditated, and its songs are longer and maybe a touch more involved, but none of this halts Ponytail's sugar-buzz energy -- if anything, the album's clarity gives a better idea of just how big the band's sound can be than Kamehameha did. "Late for School"'s joyous guitar flurries and the noise-surf of "7 Souls" breeze by like lost songs from Ponytail's first album, but "G Shock" -- which features fancy fretwork that sounds like sped-up funk, massive drums, and Siegel's vocalizations (which sound a little like an avant-garde cheerleader cheering the rest of the band on to wilder and faster musical feats) -- swells up, explodes, and drifts away like a cloudburst. Ice Cream Spiritual!'s longer tracks push Ponytail closer to the expansive territory of bands like OOIOO, though Ponytail's music is still more rock-based. Once their songs pass the four-minute mark, their energy becomes hypnotic instead of spastic. "Celebrate the Body Electric" runs the spectrum of Ponytail's prettiest and noisiest sounds, but its shimmering guitars give it a desert rock trippiness; "Die Allman Bruder" channels, yes, the Allman Brothers via Sonic Youth and Deerhoof. At times, the album's extended jams get a bit wearing, but Ice Cream Spiritual! shows that Ponytail's music is still equal parts challenging, melodic, and fun.
Ice Cream Spiritual
You know that gesture when you put your lips together but let them go slack, and then blow air our of your mouth while humming? It's not a raspberry-- no tongue involved-- more like an imitation horse whinny, and it's the kind of thing you might see a baby doing when she's figuring out all the different sounds that the body can produce. Well, Molly Siegel of Ponytail knows this gesture, and she thinks enough of it to have it be her first sound on the band's second album, Ice Cream Spiritual. At the beginning of the opening "Beg Waves", as two guitars play one little angular riff over and over while the drummer makes a nifty hi-hat pattern, like all three are stretching before heading out for a long run, Siegel puts her lips together and lets them flap and then turns the hum into a sort of "mmmh-bhrrrrrrrr-ahhh!" And we're off.
Siegel's voice is an object of fascination in Ponytail because you can't figure out exactly what she's doing and why. The guitars (there are two, played by Ken Seeno and Dustin Wong, but no bass) and drums (by Jeremy Hyman) speak the familiar language or rock'n'roll, but she's coming from somewhere else. She grunts. She shrieks. She wails. She moans. She howls. She chants. She almost never sings, forget about talking: With her approach to vocals, a bunch of words strung together would only be a distraction. Of the however many hundreds of sounds she makes over the course of this album, maybe 1% are used in service of an understandable unit of language. The rest of the time she goes where the spirit moves her. It'd be one thing if she were "using her voice as an instrument," as we music writers like to say, but that's not really it either. She doesn't have any particular vocal gifts, no four-octave range or studied arsenal of effects, and she's not doing anything you couldn't do if you had the desire, stamina, and a few bags of medicated cough drops. But here she is.
It's hard to know how Siegel's approach might work if she were in another kind of band, but in Ponytail her voice fits perfectly. While their sound may at times overlap with certain experimental rock outfits from Japan-- OOIOO, say, or Afrirampo-- Ponytail are more inclined toward catchy riffs and hooks, and thus far they've shown an aversion to the abstract, free-form noise odyssey. It's not enough fun. Deerhoof are another common reference point, which makes some sense, but Ponytail are far less studied, the more cerebral prog overtones swapped out for the "Hey guys, let's grab these guitars and make a racket in the garage!" pleasures of a surf rock band.
Which is not to say that Ponytail are casual and making it up as they go along. All three instrumentalists, as far as I can tell, have chops, and these songs are filled with the kind herky-jerky stop/starts, tempo changes, harmonized leads, and tricky fills you don't think to try unless you have some confidence in your ability. One of the things that elevates this record above Kamehameha, the band's comparatively crude (but still pretty great) 2006 debut, is the sound. With J Robbins producing and the vastly improved sonics, you have a much clearer idea of what everyone is doing. Little things are important with this band, and here, you can actually make them out.
So you get all the tactile detail of the crashing drums in "G Shock" as they move from the rolls of the elongated opening section to the galloping propulsion of the tune's middle. You get the hissing of the subtle hi-hat during the track's quiet breakdown, where Siegel coos almost melodically and everything all of a sudden turns sweet. And you get the real sense of atmosphere from the opening of "Late For School" as one guitar lets loose a gorgeous cloud of feedback drone, which is then dispersed by the insane arpeggios that take over two minutes in. (Indeed, the guitar tones throughout are an absolute wonder, enough to make even the most jaded electronic music head fall in love again with the possibilities of the guitar/amp interface.)
While Japanese noise-rock or latter-day indie prog come to mind, the band I keep thinking about while listening to Ice Cream Spiritual-- and this even without proper tunes-- is the Pixies. Something about the twists and turns these songs take-- the way they don't quite work like they're supposed to and so wind up working better-- has the feel of Surfer Rosa/Doolittle at their most chaotic. At times it seems like Ponytail took the second half of "Tame", the point where Frank Black is reduced to heavy breathing and throat-shredding screams while Kim Deal lets out her "Ah-ah-ah" sighs, and extended that minute-long section to album length. And you could see these guys writing something about a superhero named Tony.
Another way to understand Ponytail, finally, is by thinking of them in terms of Baltimore, their city. Like Dan Deacon and the Wham City crew, Ponytail are finding ways to take the concerns of childhood and channel them into deceptively sophisticated music. But instead of the 8-bit toys that every middle class American has laying in front of their televisions, Ponytail build monuments to the boundless energy of kids with a real rock band's tools. And it's here that the pre-verbal approach taken by Siegel again becomes important. I should note that her vocals are going to bug plenty of people, and she may well turn out to be the reason you can't get into this band. But heard another way, over the course of this tremendously fun album, from that opening blurt on, she begins to make a weird kind of sense. Listening to her, I think of John Cage's quote about poetry taken to its logical extreme: She has nothing to say and she is saying it. Loudly. And with a sense of joy that's nothing short of infectious.
- Mark Richardson, June 25, 2008