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Ass Ponys

Some Stupid With a Flare Gun

(Checkered Past)

By Keith Harris

Rumor has it that Son Volt are splitting up: in April the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages reported that founder Jay Farrar is recording demos with another lineup and may have pulled the plug on everysimp’s favorite alt-country band. Unfortunately these organisms have a way of subdividing–I wouldn’t be surprised if each member formed his own band and picked up where he left off, harnessing the power of traditional American music to the noble end of making your ex-girlfriend feel guilty enough to sleep with you one more time.

Ass Ponys have been saddled with the alt-country label as well; they debuted on A&M Records in 1994, a year before Son Volt hooked up with Warners, and their first single for the label, “Little Bastard,” made one of the last splashes in the giddy confusion of the alternative rock era. On The Known Universe (1996) lead warbler Chuck Cleaver showed more empathy for his characters; he now calls the record “a rather sad set of songs.” I call it an unheralded moment of post-alt grace. But A&M called it quits, and the Ponys were cut loose shortly thereafter. This spring they resurfaced with a new album on the independent Chicago roots label Checkered Past. Some Stupid With a Flare Gun makes colorful use of organ, banjo, and slide guitar, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were an uncredited mandolin in there somewhere, but you’d be wrong to call it alt-country, or even roots rock. The title of their A&M debut, supplied by the son of a friend of Cleaver’s, is probably most accurate–just call it “electric rock music.”

If you’ve ever listened to FM radio, you know that “some stupid with a flare gun” is a quote from Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” And if you’re geographically inclined you know that Deep Purple belong to England. But in truth Deep Purple are only from England–they belong to the American heartland. Bloated British hard rock from the 70s has about as much connection to the current UK music scene as french fries have with France. While the Brits were listening to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Ponys’ crowd were cloistered in their basements with a used LP of Machine Head and a nickel bag of skunk weed, keeping an eye out for mom’s car.

Some Stupid With a Flare Gun is steeped in the AOR verities the Ponys grew up with. On “Astronaut” a widow summons cosmic images of her lost love while listening to Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” and only the thick cables of riffing Gibsons anchor Cleaver’s fancies to the ground. Now close to 40, Cleaver sings very much like a man who wants to sing very much like Richard Manuel of the Band. The fact that he can only approximate Manuel’s yearning falsetto makes his efforts all the more poignant. In a genre thick with beautiful losers and other walking cliches, Cleaver’s striving says something about the Ponys’ Americana, though they would never use that word to describe their collection of homespun grotesques.

So how do you categorize an album that embraces hope even as it opens with a woman hanging herself in bored desperation after she hits 30? Employing a sense of aphorism that matches his eye for detail, Cleaver accepts the fact that there’s a world of emotion beyond his understanding. On “Your Amazing Life” he introduces a lonely vignette with the observation “It’s a lunch buffet for one / And an iced tea hold the lemon.” In its sense of scale, its fascination with mystery, and its fragile optimism voiced amid a hallucinatory doomscape, the record recalls last year’s standard of critical esteem, The Soft Bulletin. But while the Flaming Lips idolize scientists, one of Cleaver’s heroes is a chunky farmhand defending his cornfield against robots; “Magnus” is as charmingly absurd as anything on Electric Rock Music and a wiser tale of technophobia than anything by Radiohead. As Cleaver confesses at one point, “I’m so fascinated by these special people.”

He may dabble in the fantastic, but that hardly makes his songs surreal or the Ass Ponys any less connected to the here and now than their alt-country contemporaries. “Realists” like Jay Farrar have been stuck in their heads for years, rehearsing arguments. Even Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is lost in a fever dream, imagining the Woody Guthrie record Brian Wilson never recorded. Ass Ponys sound as if they’ve woken up too early in the day, bleary-eyed, everything slightly out of focus, but they’re at least awake.

Indie rockers no longer need to dig up “roots music” to connect with the past. Indie rock is roots music. Why emulate the Carter Family when you could be untangling the Meat Puppets’ strings? Strip away Pavement’s patina of erudition, REM’s quadruple-platinum sanctity, or the arpeggiated mazes drawn by countless emo kids and you’ve got folk music–folks who live in cities, folks with superfluous BAs, but folks regardless. These loose strands of memory (where were you the first time you heard “Aqualung”?) can be woven into a sense of community, an evocation of something lost or something we may never have even known. There’s plenty of undiscovered country out there.