High-Strung

Chicago rockers the Ponys' sense is in their sound.

Chalk it up to too many hours spent as a teenager lurking around music shops and poring over guitar-geek magazines, but when a guitar sound stirs the plasma in my veins, it usually fits into one of three categories: wood, string, and amp. If you want archetypes, then to begin with, Jimmy Page is a straight wood feller. The stuttering moments between notes in the solo from "Heartbreaker" sum up the sound of wood—the knobby and knuckled timbre (or timber) of a 1969 Les Paul Standard, an instrument that weighs as much as a small child and can be about as unruly if you're trying to play anything more complex than boogie riffs, with which Page always wrestled on anything but a home field. If Thelonious Monk played the notes between the keys, Page played the carpentry between the strings—see the nailing-a-small-cottage-to-the-front-door-of-a-castle clamor that kicks off the "solo" from Led Zeppelin's "In the Evening."

Then there's Angus Young, who's so about the strings that the real hooks in "Let There Be Rock" are those isolated savant-garde moments where he reminds you what's making all the noise by tangling himself up in their high-tension brambles and musically garroting himself.

As for me, I like amps—you can unwind them for a couple hours, then warm yourself at the hearth of their tube glow for the rest of the night in your freezing rehearsal space, since you, being a guitar player, are homeless. You can enjoy Lou Reed momentarily forgetting the proximity to his Fender Twin in "I Heard Her Call My Name," whirling around for his solo but instead planting the headstock of his ax square against its tweed, as well as the atavistic roar of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, an album that's about amps like Las Vegas is about neon, amps being neon signs without the gas.

And so I love the Ponys' Laced With Romance, because they love their amps and so do I, and so did everyone along every stage of its nascence, from its aptly named label—In the Red—to its engineer, ex–Dirtbombs bassist and freelance decibel conservationist Jim Diamond.

The Web page for Diamond's Ghetto Recorders, the Detroit studio where Laced With Romance was recorded in three days, contains few words. In contrast to most indie recording studios' Web sites, which proffer grocery lists of trendy "analog" gear like the pimp in Taxi Driver rattling off the kinds of dope on offer, Ghetto Recorders' Web site is Internet punk when even punk rock is Web-friendly. "Boasting all the amenities of prison, Ghetto Recorders is the only studio that matters," it deadpans. "It's in a decidedly questionable part of town, where danger is always imminent; if your car isn't stolen, then it's bound to get ticketed." Note that these guys are trying to make a living. Even the Web site for Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studio in Chicago features flash-driven panoramas of the mission-inspired architecture of its live rooms. By contrast, Diamond's minimal Web site offers up a crappy snapshot of his tape machine ("The size of a dishwasher, not some little ex–video recorder," he spits in a Dutch fanzine), and aside from a phone number, not too much else.

Fuck the Web, that little ex–video recorder. Diamond's recording work with bands like the White Stripes forged the tonality of the "garage rock revival" simply by maintaining the arcane studio methodology of previous Detroit rock albums like the Stooges' Fun House—band plays song in room, needle hits red, a process already old-school when it was done 35 years ago—amid the evolution of recording philosophy since then, like isolating amps in padded closets in the '70s, or merely buying both amp and padded closet on CD-ROM, like today.

It's a marriage made in ValHella. To the extent that Diamond embodies Detroit's recordist aesthetic, the Ponys are also very Chicago, in light of their hometown's tradition of musicians either making essentially conventional music on ghetto gear or really weird music on state-of-the-art gear. To their credit, the Ponys split the difference, writing songs ("Let's Kill Ourselves," "10 Fingers 11 Toes," "Fall Inn") that are unimaginable through anything but their own beautifully f'd-up infidelity. The guitars on Laced With Romance make headphones sound like speakers, and speakers sound like amps that extend a quarter-mile beyond and a story below where you're standing, the barometric violence of sitting in a car while the windows blow out from the impact of a falling piano.

Big guitar is relative, obviously, but the Ponys' context is the pop song, albeit a pop song whose key is tuned to the spots on the necks of their guitars that most effectively make their amps sound like a dinosaur shaking down a '69 GTO for pocket change. This is where Diamond's laconic talent hits pay dirt. His production is beyond sympathetic. And, yeah, this is a dumb record—no offense to my Chi-town home slices—with no memorable lyrics aside from the odd chorus refrain and absolutely no unifying band image/mythos to speak of. But that's the double-edged sword of the guitar-sound imperative. Would Laced With Romance be a great record without that guitar? How much of a song is just its sound? Jesus fuck, you'd think electricity was still a luxury in some places. You pretend you don't know from the asking.

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The Ponys play the Crocodile Cafe with the Dirtbombs and the Starlite Desperation at 9 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 7. $12.

 
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