If you’re a music junkie, compulsively seeking out that next fix, that band you never heard before, that album by a favorite band which escaped you in the past, then you have to like an underdog. And you likely have a sense of justice that makes you say, first to yourself, then to suffering friends, “Ya gotta hear these guys! They shoulda made it!” Which brings us to Cincinnati’s Ass Ponys and Britain’s Brakes.
ASS PONYS, Electric Rock Music (A&M, 1994) — I haven’t had much luck figuring out just what an ass pony is. Hell, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to. But one has to admire a band with the guts to put such a lovely name on a half-dozen albums, two of them on a major label that must have been swilling nirvana and snorting grunge in the great alt-rock signing frenzy of the early 1990s.
Obstacles to success pile high, as leader Chuck Cleaver’s high, pinched voice tells short-story-worthy small-town tales of a “Little Bastard,” a tween named “Peanut” and a “Wall-Eyed Girl.” But pile it all together and somehow it works, so well that I return again and again to Electric Rock Music and the three subsequent records — The Known Universe, Some Stupid with a Flair Gun and Lohio — they made before giving it up.
Cleaver’s voice worms its way into the songs and your head. It pairs perfectly with his words, which vividly and darkly bring to life the characters that people his weird world. It’s a world of UFOs, spontaneous human combustion and grandmas who make dolls out of socks and craft beer can hats, leading to the eternal question: “Earth to Grandma. What the hell is that?”
It works because of lines like the one from grandmother and grandson in “Little Bastard”: “She calls him Little Bastard, and she says it to his face. He says, ‘Don’t call me Little Bastard, call me Snake.’ ” Because of lines from the man who lost his love to Jesus in “Grim”: “Standing on the highway, pants around my knees. I’d write her name out on the road, but I can’t piss Denise.” And because of the lines of frustration in “Gypped”: “So you figure all along you must have been mistaken. All the things that mattered one by one have been forsaken. And you’re feeling gypped.”
It works because of the music, a sort of twisted take on alt-country. Some songs are acoustic driven, like “Little Bastard,” “Place Out There” and “Live Until I Die,” while others thunder with guitars, like the slamming “Gypped” and opening riff for the ages of “Wall Eyed Girl.”
And it works because it’s all so human, so hopeful and so damn strange that when Cleaver sings “I want to live until I die,” it makes me want to go, “Damn right.” There’s not much of Electric Rock Music but catch a taste at myspace.com/assponysmusic.
BRAKES, Touchdown (2009) — Rocking hard but catchy as hell, it doesn’t seem a stretch to think the Brakes, from Brighton, England, could be playing arenas, and be deserving of big rooms.
It’s straightforward guitar rock and punk pop, bringing to mind a Brit Green Day, but throws in shards of country hoedown now and then, like on “Eternal Return.” The guitar, from Thomas White, comes hard and tight, and the rhythm section of bassist Marc Beatty and drummer Alex White hammers it home.
But at its center is singer Eamon Hamilton, onetime keyboardist for British Sea Power before dedicating his time to the Brakes – who go by brakesbrakesbrakes in the US because another band had the name first. Hamilton’s just got an excellent rock voice, one that can go from an acoustic love song to full-bore rocker to punk shoutalong, all while keeping his distinctive sound and all while sounding every bit the Brit.
Instrumentally and vocally, those strengths give the Brakes a wide range. They pull off fast ones like “Hey Hey,” “Don’t Take Me to Space (Man)” and “Crush on You” as well as gear shifters like “Two Shocks” and “Why Tell the Truth (When It’s Easier to Lie),” both starting slow but steadily putting pedal to metal. “Red Rag” sounds like something from an early 80s punk band, and “Leaving England” is slow and pensive.
The Brakes have a reputation as a great live band, and from Touchdown it’s not hard to see why. myspace.com/brakesband