It’s tough to evaluate a band or an album without considering where they come from or where it was made. The Strokes are a classic New York City band, not to be confused with the similar-yet-different subset of Brooklyn-based indie rock like Grizzly Bear or Yeasayer. Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes plain and simple sound like the Pacific Northwest. In much the same way, Ponytail, the art rock four-piece from Baltimore, has become a rallying point for the city’s art scene, encapsulating everything it means to be from Baltimore, to be Baltimoreans.
The group started as a homework assignment for an art class at the Maryland Institute College of Art; the professor grouped the students together, based entirely on physical appearance and gut reactions on the first day of classes, and instructed each group to form a band and make music together. Lead singer Molly Siegel had never played an instrument before, so naturally, she picked up the microphone, began chirping, blowing raspberries and yelling half-words in half-English, creating an indescribable vocal style all her own.
If that origin story sounds totally, incomprehensibly crazy, it’s because it is. What’s more, after listening to Ponytail’s discography or taking a walk around downtown Baltimore, it somehow makes perfect sense, as if Ponytail couldn’t have formed any other way. As anyone who’s seen The Wire can tell you, Baltimore’s a notoriously rough city. When I took summer classes at Johns Hopkins last year, my brother, a JHU graduate, told me not to walk past Greenmount Avenue by myself. When I showed up to campus, the housing adviser told me the boundaries had actually shifted since my brother’s enrollment; that they had “lost” about three blocks and that I shouldn’t go past the hospital on Guilford.
It’s this threat of constant danger that Ponytail embraces and captures so effortlessly in their music. The blossoming art scene in Baltimore is one of the finest in the country, largely due to the fact that the artists themselves are pretty much left alone to do whatever the hell they want, as long as they don’t cause too much trouble. The cops aren’t going to bust a 100% DIY concert in an abandoned warehouse downtown, set up and orchestrated entirely by twenty-somethings, when there are cokeheads and crack dealers around the corner to keep in line. Ponytail sort of unifies the entire Baltimore community, an experimental fusion of cultures and musical and artistic backgrounds, creating vibrant, youthful, carefree and organic art in some of the roughest neighborhoods in America. One gets the sense that Ponytail isn’t making “weird” music purely for the sake of making “weird” music — there’s something deeper going on. The name of the album itself is Do Whatever You Want All The Time, for crying out loud.
The album opens with the first single “Easy Peasy,” a lively follow-up to “Beg Waves,” which kicked off their 2008 album Ice Cream Spiritual. Dual guitarists (there’s no bassist in Ponytail) Dustin Wong and Ken Seeno trade riffs back and forth and feed off of each other as Siegel chirps and yelps. Drummer Jeremy Hyman does his best to keep the band in time and prevent the song from imploding on itself as it weaves in and out of its five or six different movements.
Things immediately slow down a bit for the second track “Flabbermouse.” The band experiments with a larger, more open sound, with Siegel layering vocals over Wong and Seeno’s trademarked call-and-response before the song runs out of steam and lulls itself to sleep in the closing minute. “Beyondersville/Flight of Fancy” sounds vaguely reminiscent of Dirty Projectors as Siegel takes a relative backseat to a vocal synthesizer. “AwayWay” revisits the wide open landscape painted by “Flabbermouse” earlier in the record as Siegel and her bandmates howl back and forth to each other. Siegel’s vocal style is infectious, and Seeno takes center stage about four minutes into the track, yelping out a few “why-o-why-o-waaaahs!” before Hyman jumpstarts everybody into dance mode with thirty seconds left in the song. Six-and-a-half-minute closer “Music Tunes” is reminiscent of the seven minute centerpiece “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel)” on Ice Cream Spiritual. The song is a slow build, with each band member getting to flex his or her individual muscle until the spontaneous overflow of emotion sends the album off in a celebration of the bizarre and the “weird.”
The third track, “Honey Touches,” is arguably the album’s highlight and a fan favorite in the band’s live show. After a minute of buildup, Hyman breaks it down with a two-stepping beat before Wong and Seeno introduce a killer surf rock riff and Siegel sings (some of the only words on the album) “I thought you were there, but you’re not, so, I think I’m just gonna stay here.” Toward the end, Hyman begins rolling the snare as Wong and Seeno polish off the track with cascading waves of sound, the background vocals reaching a crescendo as Siegel finishes up “I know, it’s not that fun.”
My summer in Baltimore was, for a multitude of reasons, one of the worst summers I’ve ever had. I was fortunate enough to see Ponytail live during Whartscape 2010, a 100% volunteer-organized and run music festival spearheaded by Dan Deacon. The festival was in its fifth year and attracted some big name bands and quality venues and locations around the city; the DIY aspect and youthful energy to the show has waned a bit, but it’s still a labor of love, of giving back to the city that has lost so much in recent history. Siegel’s right — Baltimore isn’t always all that fun, but Ponytail is. I’m taking a page out of Siegel’s book and making Do Whatever You Want All The Time my 2011 mantra.
Final Grade: A-