Atlanta/Athens-based rock and roll band Ponderosa’s sophomore album is plenty of things an outstanding second offering should aim to be: a natural progression to an existing foundation, an exploration of avenues begging to be taken, and a ballsy ability to defy any desire to compartmentalize a sound. The Southern rock tag has been associated with Ponderosa since the band came into existence, and it has made every bit of sense on paper: the band is comprised of five guys from Georgia, they have taken a moniker of classic Western lore, and they have made a name for themselves playing two guitars, keys, vocals, and rhythm section rock and roll for the impressive country western-tinged rock and roll imprint New West Records. On Ponderosa’s 2011 debut, Moonlight Revival, the band lived up to the Southern rock the album title implied, and they played a particularly skilled brand of the genre.
Ponderosa’s invigorating sophomore effort Pool Party delivers every ounce of new energy and atmosphere the title implies. The album opens on the formidable shoulders of the patient, stunning “For Here I Am Born,” a slowly building gem that breaks wide open into an exhilarating, pastoral anthem in the back half of the song. Fans of Moonlight Revival immediately will realize they have been cast off into new territory on Pool Party, but the true surprise comes in how natural the transition feels and how wonderfully the confident strides are executed. Arguments are welcome in debating the lack of judgment of a band sequencing a song that starts deceptively slow up front in the verses for the opening track of a sophomore album, but Ponderosa makes an artistic statement for what’s to come as well as a Fleet Foxes did with “Montezuma” on their own brilliant sophomore record, Helplessness Blues (an album that has more than a fleeting influence upon many shades of Pool Party). Where “For Here I Am Born” excels (and the vast majority of the innumerable shining moments on Pool Party for that matter) is in the transition from understated verses to a mammoth chorus that rides chugging rails of propulsive rhythm, sure-handed textures, and triumphant vocals.
“Navajo,” Pool Party’s lead single, encapsulates every ounce of that delirious verse-to-chorus bewilderment to intoxicating effect. Frontman Kalen Nash comes across as more of a kindred spirit of Jónsi as opposed to Chris Robinson in the brisk, uneasily translated verses of the song before Nash galvanizes his magnificent howl as the structure detonates into the most splendid radio-ready chorus of the summer for rock and roll lovers with an ear for impeccable pop (if radio airplay meant a damn thing to true rock and roll fans in today’s age). Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear a more enchanting three-and-a-half minute rock song with such a gargantuan hook before year’s end.
The fallacy in making such a heady statement is bound to become obvious with so many songs left to hear in 2012. Inevitably, an anthem that can give “Navajo” a run for its money comes two songs later in the form of the title track. “Pool Party” is a rousing anthem packed with adventurous instrumentation and a chorus that channels every bit of the band’s rustic backbone with an urbane wide-eyed wonder of chasing grand dreams in the modern world. “We get lost in chandeliers/Drink in the wake of passing years…Burn down the place where you were last found.” The tune is a howl-at-the-moon, barn-burning anthem with every bit of red-blooded life five guys can pick into a groove on a slice of vinyl.
What Ponderosa achieves not only on the album’s outright anthems, but also on the gorgeous “Black Hill Smoke,” on the pitch-perfect Pet Sounds melodicism that slides over impeccably played instruments to create the transcendental magic hour on a shoreline vibe of “Never Come Back,” on the exquisite “On Your Time,” and on the album’s collection of tunes rich in iridescent atmosphere is sheer confidence. Ponderosa’s impressive devotion to their vision of Pool Party is a wonderful thing to behold time and again. They craft immaculate compositions on Pool Party that both brim with vital life and establish definitive moods that capitalize on everything that came before while also cultivating fertile soil that has yet to be tread. The term Southern rock that gets directed so casually towards Ponderosa is fair to the band’s background but inept in describing where exactly the band stands.
The Georgia guys of Ponderosa aren’t the first Southern five-piece to be inaccurately categorized in such a genre only to blast the misconception to smithereens; Louisville heroes My Morning Jacket have walked that exact ground with superior gusto and the occasional pair of space boots, and they have reigned as one of the most exciting bands in rock for the better part of a decade for excellent reason. Casual MMJ fans split hairs over the most polarizing songs of Z, Evil Urges and Circuital while lamenting the glory days of the Southern perfection on It Still Moves and At Dawn only to change their tune when “Smokin From Shootin,” “Holdin On to Black Metal,” and “One Big Holiday” play perfectly against other in the set list of a MMJ live show. On Pool Party, Ponderosa crafts a sound that comes across as the equivalent of It Still Moves-style Southern rock and roll with an emphasis on the massive hooks rather than the extended grain silo jams. They excel further by adapting a kindred pop experimentalism akin to major chunks of MMJ’s three most recent records while still maintaining a sharp focus on harmony by slicing off the most hotly debated rough edges.
It’s far too early in Ponderosa’s career to toast them in anywhere near equal esteem to legitimate genre-smashing giants like My Morning Jacket, but Pool Party finds the band self-assuredly crafting a caliber of album that boldly soars on that trajectory. For the time being though, it’s probably best to take a few steps back from all that has been said. The valuable decision is the one to spend little time worrying about what genre Ponderosa falls into, who influences them, and what an ideal sophomore album should comprise if it aims to meet or exceed expectations. It’s best to just drop the needle, turn the knob a few clicks louder and get delightfully wrapped up in the welcome, unexpected gift of an album that can sneak up on you and transport you to an alluring panorama with charms that multiply on each additional listen.
We're looking for writers and editors to join the team. Interested? Apply today!