Pony Express – Becoming What You Hate

Pony Express
Becoming What You Hate

You’d think that after working as a librarian for six years, I’d learn not to judge a book by its cover. I can distinctly remember taking one home in high school that had all the earmarks of a sci-fi pulp novel about phone phreaking and artificial intelligence – and the acrid sting of dissapointment that followed when it ended up containing 150 continuous pages of dialogue about masturbation and housepainters. Then, a year later, expecting stories about pianists and pale reclusives, I managed to pick up the damn sequel – which was about stopping time in order to look at people naked. Still, the most important lessons remain the most difficult to learn, which is why I approached Pony Express’s Becoming What You Hate with a little trepidation. How could I know? The album art screams “Virgin Megastore cut-out bin circa 1993,” and the one-page factsheet that came with the album uses poor grammar! Doesn’t that mean whatever’s inside is, itself, discountable?
Well, of course not – not unless you’re one of those fuckheads with the white belts that keeps telling me about form over function and spilling imported beer on my sleeve at shows while the rest of us are trying to actually listen to the actual music. I don’t care how you spell “Kurious Oranj,” just like I never cared how to spell “Mayonaise” in middle school, just as long as I get to listen to it. Becoming What You Hate could come wrapped in old butcher’s paper, for all I care – it’s a fantastic album either way. (Good thing this reviewing gig requires me to listen to the records I get.)
“So, what’s so great about this album,” you’re thinking, “that you’re making me wade through two paragraphs of yelling and books to get to it?” Well – before someone taught Mark Linkhous what “album-wide consistency” meant, remember how Sparklehorse had this wonderful knack for mid-album juxtapositions that only made sense five listens in? Maybe it’s just me, but listening to Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot always made me feel like I was rummaging through someone’s hope chest in a fever dream. Becoming What You Hate feels like that, except with less derivation into audio experimentation and songs that just chase their tails – somehow, with a Quaalude-hazed veneer over the whole thing, Pony Express manage to nail together what feel like 18 ideas into less than a dozen songs, without sounding schizophrenic or pretentious, and whilte maintaining their pop sensibility. Take, for example, “GPA;” some 45 seconds into the song, someone strikes a wrong chord, innocently, and just as you’re wondering whether or not it was intentional, the song dissolves into a ridiculous pile of distortion. Haven’t we seen Malkmus and Elvrum doing similar things? Sure – but where ol’ “S followed by a T” would’ve lit a cigarette and started picking through the dictionary, and Elvrum would’ve bounced the whole thing between speakers and thrown a choir on top, Pony Express sound as though they’ve discovered something about writing a pop album that the rest of us haven’t caught onto – some fantastic mix of irreverence and varied taste and sweet tooths that always feels like it shouldn’t be as cohesive and effective as it is.
Which is not to say that these are unlistenable experiments in four-tracking; sometimes the juxtapositions are simple and subtle. Placing the fingerpicking-and-singing “Teenagers & Fire” in front of the overbombastic, you’ve-got-your-Spiritualized-in-my-Sabbath “Headlights are the Answers” is so jarring, it’s almost genius. Even the band’s choices in instrumentation and arrangement avoid treading upon cliche; the refrain of “Long Island” wafts up from the tremelo-dazed too-many-Margueritas chorus – “You’re just too drunk to drive home / You’re just drunk enough to drive home” – and then comes down to a sarcastic, farty guitar line as though it were a hangover. And I can’t possibly finish this review without mentioning the last track – a “Sister Ray” -namechecking lo-lo-fi piece that halfway through gains what I like to call the Muppet Hell International Choir. I cannot possibly do it justice with words alone. In the name of grossly-underdesigned albums everywhere, I implore you to find out on your own exactly how good power-pop can be when it’s disassembled and reconstructed by Pony Express. Or do you have some hand-silkscreened LP covers to drink vermouth at?