erasing clouds

Ponies in the Surf, See You Happy

by dave heaton

Raised in Bogota, Columbia but living in the Boston area now, the brother-sister duo of Alexander and Camille McGregor, aka Ponies in the Surf, stand out from other relatively young, indie-label musicians in so many ways. For one, their world of music is more expansive. Their new album See You Happy comes with a bonus CD, Noche, Noche which gives a sense of where they're coming from, through six covers: Leonard Cohen, Henry Mancini, Talking Heads, two songs by Argentinean singer/actor Palito Ortega, and "Poor Jenny", by F & B Bryant but taken up the charts by the Everly Brothers.

Their own songs perhaps stand at some crossroads of all these styles of music as others you may think of Jonathan Richman, of various Latin American musical styles, of various strains of folk, of lullabies and nursery rhymes and more. The siblings once said that Ponies in the Surf "started out as a strummed lark on a summertime porch", and it sounds like it. That is, it conjures up that same feeling, but via songs that are much more than just on-the-fly larks, carefree as they feel. There are wistful songs, sweet songs, and melancholy ones, with the music generally fitting all of those adjectives plus more pretty, delicate, imaginative. When it comes to the lyrics, the sweetness, the melancholy, the wistfulness rarely are expressed in familiar ways. The moment that strikes me as saddest isn't about death or loneliness, but someone falling in with the wrong crowd; it's this line in "Bad Crowd" "Life in the city has changed you / but not for good." The most tender moment might be the chorus to "Ventricle" "Yes I've got a little space for you / yes I've got a little ventricle / yes I've got a little place in my heart for you." In both places, it's as much about how they're singing as the words themselves. Camille has a lovely voice that complements Alexander's somewhat more rugged, but still sensitive one. They beautifully together, and sometimes beautifully oddly, at times following the melodies upward, though other times they, Alex especially, sing with more of an affable conversational tone, which also fits their songs well.

Alexander McGregor plays an assortment of instruments organs, guitar, bass, cornet and plays them sweetly and expressively, helping give the songs a luxurious atmosphere without overdoing it. Andrew Churchman of Pants Yell! plays drums, with a light, almost-jazzy touch. Because of that musical richness, and an especially charming selection of songs, See You Happy encapsulates Ponies in the Surf's sound much more solidly and fully than any of their previous releases (all CD-Rs; this is their first proper, jewel-cased CD), though all were immensely enjoyable. At the same time, there's a few songs here that stretch beyond even the expectations that big fans of the band would have, showing that Ponies in the Surf are not easily defined. "Johnny Rebel" is like some oddball pop single from the '50s paying tribute to a mythic figure. It reminds me of some ground in between those girl-group ballads about leather-jacketed motorcycle boys and folk-hero-tribute-ballads to someone like Davey Crockett or Swamp Fox. But it's even more surreal than that, with Alexander singing the vocals in a vague fake foreign accent.

Then there's "Holes in the Wall", perhaps the first Ponies in the Surf song to resemble a rock song, due to its pushing-forward energy. It makes me understand why the press release mentions Violent Femmes, though I never in a million years would have thought of them myself. If rock evokes angst for you, though, get that word out of your head, cause this is more of a rollicking, super-catchy number, with a DIY spirit and some playful commentary on the old versus the new. Speaking of old and new, this is a band that evokes both without sounding like what most people would think of as either. Their music evokes multiple places and time periods in its own weird way. And instead of joining in on, or even reacting against, any of the prevailing musical fashion of the day, they create their own, without trying too hard. That attitude winds up making them a quiet little band humbly making some of the most exciting, interesting music around these days, on what is without a doubt one of my favorite albums so far this year.


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