Castles Made of Guitars

Chicago rockers the Ponys dodge the sophomore slump.

NO ONE REALLY wins when a rock band is canonized. Fans feel like pawns in the game of heavily hyphenated high-gloss punk, while the band typically find themselves in a clusterfuck of thoughts and emotions ranging from excitement that their photo might soon grace Spin magazine to panic and dread when they remember that they hate Spin magazine. And in the meantime, at least according to Jered Gummere of the Ponys, these consecrated musicians are still “playing to the same 20 people in Nebraska.”

Despite the fact that critics and bloggers alike were calling him the modern day Richard Hell and that Entertainment Weekly said his band was “dope,” Gummere says nothing much changed when his band’s debut, Laced With Romance, became the rock record of the moment early last spring. When I called him at home in Chicago a few weeks ago as he prepared for the release of the Ponys’ second album and some time on the road with the megahyped Bloc Party, I didn’t exactly get the feeling that Gummere was prepping for photo shoots or juggling calls from MTV.

Actually, as purloined songs from the new Celebration Castle (In the Red) began to stream into hard drives all over the underground a few months ago, it was the excitement of garage-rock bloggers and forum hounds that surprised me the most. Romance had all the hallmarks of an underground runaway hit: It was produced at Ghetto Studios in Detroit by Jim Diamond, and it soaks in Seeds-ish fuzz tones, snotty vocals, layers of echo, and lines of Farfisa. On the other hand, Celebration Castle has a couple of aberrantly cute pop songs on it, it sounds as much like Three Imaginary Boys as Blank Generation, and, well, Steve Albini recorded it. Still, on message boards across the ether, dudes who spell rock with an “a” and a “w” were behind it. They had the songs on repeat. They couldn’t get enough of them.

“To me, it’s still just a shitload of guitars,” says Gummere of his band’s latest. He’s right, of course—the band’s brightly fuzzed, ’60s-influenced, ’70s-aping riffage is still hanging tough at the core of the sound. But on the second release, there’s also a shitload of up-front vocals telling stories about broken girls and a broken world. Group refrains and crystalline (if affected) vocals by Gummere, bassist Melissa Elias, and now-departed guitarist/organist Ian Adams give the “rawk” edge a pop sheen.

NOT THAT THAT isn’t its own quagmire. As you come acrosslines like “I read your article on page 19 in the local magazine/And I heard all I need to know,” standout tracks such as “Another World” sound suspiciously like the stuff of jaded sophomore records—you know, rockers responding to being taken for pop stars. But Gummere says most of the tracks on Celebration are a couple of years old, so they can’t easily be written off as cynical circumventing. For the most part, Gummere shies away from discussing subject matter altogether; the band writes democratically, as a unit, and their reluctant de facto frontman is most comfortable letting you decipher the lyrics and find your own meaning. With “Another World” and “Today” (wherein Gummere again seems to hint at deflecting the Ponys’ hype: “The media’s crazy/People looking all around”), the songs’ churning, downward spiral of guitars (pausing to sparkle before they distort), taken with the precise pummeling of drummer Nathan Jerde, tells you everything you need to know: This is a rock record—and a rawk record, and a pop record.

Even if the band doesn’t necessarily want to sit around seriously discussing it, Celebration Castle feels very au courant as well. Whereas their first led with “Let’s Kill Ourselves,” this one reneges and brags that “We Shot the World,” while “Discoteca” notes, “I see a life that’s filled with pain/The human race is engulfed with shame,” and “Glass Conversation” becomes an anthem for the world’s second Cold War.

In a rare revelatory moment, Gummere tells me that he based “We Shot the World” on the 1984 WWIII teen flick Red Dawn: “That was my favorite movie in high school,” he says. But responding to the idea that rock—or pop or any other kind of music or art—ought to reflect the world outside the club, he says, “Everyone is thinking about crazy shit right now, and if you live in a city, you see crazy shit every day. But music gives you a way to get away from that.”

Fair enough, then—and this way, everyone wins.

The Ponys play Neumo’s with Gris Gris, Charming Snakes, and Plastic Crimewave Sound at 8 p.m. Sat., May 14. $10.