The Ponys' 2004 debut Laced With Romance got good reviews but little real hype, and now the Chicago band has snuck in under the radar again with Celebration Castle, a fresh set of equally difficult-to-categorize songs. The Ponys of 2005 have some commonalities with the current crop of new-wave and post-punk revivalistsparticularly the deep, wounded voice of bandleader Jered Gummerebut their influences stretch back further, to the New York rock primitives of the mid-'70s, and the late '60s garage-rockers that seem like Laced With Romance's closest kin. Halfway through the frenzied "Ferocious," the final song on Celebration Castle, The Ponys even break for a syrupy acid-rock guitar solo straight out of the psychedelic era. Who the heck are these guys?
The band's grace and curse is that it's more song-oriented than sound-oriented. Celebration Castle's opening track, "Glass Conversation," probably could've been arranged in a dozen different ways, and it's possible that this versionall jangle, shimmer, and booming echoisn't the ideal one. But "Glass Conversation" is hooky and evocative enough to endure whatever the band wants to do to it, and as it happens, Steve Albini's storm-at-sea production brings a level of queasy authenticity to Gummere's recreation of a lover's quarrel. Similarly, the low buzz of "Another Wound" emphasizes its first line, "And then it starts / Yeah, I read your article / Page 19 / In the local magazine," making it stand out as a specific page in Gummere's book of slights. The fact that the song sounds like Killing Joke crossed with Echo & The Bunnymen is almost incidental.
Celebration Castle is primarily beholden to the lovesick-teenager streak that runs through every rock 'n' roll incarnation. Witness the chant-along "We Shot The World," which lays a sinewy, ominous instrumental track under impressionistic lyrics that use post-apocalyptic imagery to describe the generation gap. It's pretentious in the best possible sense, in that Gummere and company are actively trying to explain and evoke the enduring appeal of youth culture. Whether they'll actually reach that culture this time out is another question, but it doesn't matter much when The Ponys can produce a song as perfect and definitive as "I'm With You," a zippy two-and-a-half-minute burst of trash-pop about two bratty lovers kissing off the rest of the world.