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The Ponys Play With Rayguns

Chicago's Ponys have a formidable arsenal of musical armaments — the jagged slash of post-punk guitars, the swirl of retro-garage Farfisa, the deadpan girl-spoken vocals, and a lead singer who can match the '70s-era Richard Hell yelp for yelp.

The band's sound blends the classic rock (VU, Stones) and the hardcore punk (Germs, Dead Kennedys) singer/guitarist Jered Gummere grew up on, with the more melodic Pink Floyd, Byrds and Devo (well, so much for melodic) records keyboard player Ian Adams (who also plays guitar) remembers listening to with his dad. Gummere said that his #1 influence is The Cramps, and you can hear a little of that band's surreal punk-rockabilly vibe in tracks like "Looking Out a Mirror." But really, he'd rather not be pinned down. "Basically, we listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and I think our record is kind of all over the place," Gummere said during a recent interview. "We don't just have one idea we set out to accomplish."

Their new, debut album, Laced With Romance (In the Red), blends stylish alienation and infectious quality hooks. It also packs a secret weapon: a raygun. "If I had to pick one [favorite song]," Gummere said, "it's probably 'Looking Out a Mirror.'

"It's kind of a darker song, and I was really happy how the lyrics came out," he added. “Plus it has this crazy raygun that was overdubbed and mixed through an Echoplex."

The album's highlights include opening track "Let's Kill Ourselves," a drum-driven haze of distorted guitars and buzzing bass, cut through by Gummere's driven vocals and fueled by the kind of unfettered punk alienation that mostly died out in the early 1980s. Another is "Chemical Imbalance," with its spiky new-wave guitars and bassist Melissa Elias' icy-voiced spoken-word drone. Gummere noted that Adams wrote the main theme; then, as is usually the case, the rest of the band, which also includes drummer Nathan Jerde, worked the song's structure out in practice. Its edgy, end-of-the-world alienation reflects the song's subject matter, the medicalization of human suffering.

"The song is basically about how Americans are being prescribed tons of pills because they are having a bad week, and that people think pills can solve all of your mental problems," Gummere said. "Pills can be fun, but I don't think they're the end-all be-all; eventually you're going to have to do a little soul-searching."

The lyrics on Laced With Romance are uniformly interesting — in one song, a self-absorbed girlfriend says "I only love you 'cos you look like me," while another ("Little Friends") references the dogs Gummere walks for a living when he's not rocking and rolling.

But if you want the words to an older song, "Trouble, Trouble," you're out of luck, because instead of lyrics, the band has inserted a page of Japanese characters. "That was the first song we ever wrote," Gummere said. "Honestly, I think the lyrics are kinda dumb and not that interesting. I have no idea what the lyrics say in the booklet, but it's from a Malcolm McLaren interview in a Japanese magazine."

Laced With Romance was recorded by Jim Diamond (of the Dirtbombs) at Ghetto Recordings, the Detroit-based studio that has been at the epicenter of the '00s garage revival. "We did the basic tracks in about three days, and then we came back a month later and mixed it," Gummere said.

He added that Ghetto's set-up was low-key and home-like, helping the band get acclimated to the recording process right away. "Ghetto Recordings has this great open live room, nothing really fancy, but really comfortable," he said. "We were able to just set up like we practice, with no separation. People weren't in different rooms. We were all just right there together."

And working with the legendary impresario of "the" bands of the hour (including the White Stripes and Mooney Suzuki)? That was pretty low-key, too, according to Adams. "We'd play a song and [Diamond] would tell us after with his soothing voice if it was '#1' or no good. We didn't listen to the playbacks until later," he recalled.

The Ponys formed in late 2000, after Gummere left Chicago punk band the Guilty Pleasures. He and bassist Elias formed the nucleus for the new band. "We had a couple songs, and we started playing with a drummer who only lasted a few months, so we decided to approach Nathan [Jerde, formerly of the Mushuganas]," Gummere said. Adams turned up in the fall of 2002, after leaving Windy City band Happy Supply, adding a second guitar, keyboards (including a Farfisa combo compact and a Roland Juno 60 with some Echoplex tape noise) and the band's signature toy laser gun.

In addition to Laced With Romance, The Ponys have three singles out: their self-titled seven-inch on Contaminated, recorded with Jay Reatard and Alicja Trout of the Lost Sounds; Wicked City on Big Neck Records; and the latest, Prosthetic Head, on In the Red, containing two additional songs from the Ghetto Recordings sessions.

The Ponys are currently midway through a month-long tour, with dates still to come in Texas (including the In the Red showcase at SXSW on March 20), New Orleans, Mississippi, Memphis and Chicago. For tour dates, check out the In The Red Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Wednesday, March 17, 2004]

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