There are very few bands nowadays who still treat music as a necessary ritual rather than a momentary diversion, and even fewer who make it that way. Thank the gods then for Baltimore’s newest it-band, Ponytail, and their celebratory sophomore album, Ice Cream Spiritual. Whereas other post-rock/noise-pop bands of this breed seem to make sounds simply because they can, these guys seem to make them because they have to. Bravely expanding on the combustion-from-concentrate aesthetic of their debut, Spiritual finds the quartet applying more structure to their sound, achieving giddy, gritty new heights without sacrificing any of their sprawl or passion along the way.
Like fellow B-More export Dan Deacon, Ponytail are masters at channeling sheer childlike glee and excitement through song. While the former uses synthesizers, keyboards and vocodered vocal samples to accomplish this, the latter use guitars, drums and the indecipherable wails of their singer, Molly Siegel. Top prizes for anyone who can find something even close to resembling an actual lyric in the songs here—save for the lone exclamation of the title towards the end of “Late for School,” which tellingly doesn’t come from Siegel. Nevertheless, coming across as some warped hybrid of Siouxsie Sioux and Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki, she says more with less and exudes more genuine emotion and personality than many of her peers have managed in their entire discographies, whether its via her shrill bird calls (“Beg Waves”) or her atonal squeals (“Small Wevs”).
Of course, this is by no means entirely Siegel’s show. Quite the contrary, actually. If anything, she may prove to be the disqualifier for many skeptical or just plain squeamish listeners. Thankfully, her tics and tantrums are ably anchored by band mates Dustin Wong, Jeremy Hyman and Ken Seeno, who often incorporate entire albums’ worth of ideas and melodies into single songs. Look no further for an example of this than Spiritual centerpiece “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel).” Beginning as a charging anthem worthy of The National or Arcade Fire, it abruptly begins to sprout psych-metal freak-outs which then erupt into unsettlingly quiet interludes with haunting howls and trembling guitars that intensify with the music back into a sprinting crescendo. Elsewhere, Wong and Seeno’s serpentine guitar interplay evokes the best work of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, while Hyman’s percussion employs tribal rhythms and breakneck tempo changes play like the aforementioned Deerhoof recording Daydream Nation. It’s all bracing, thrilling stuff.
It’s not entirely an endurance test for the ears though. Morsels of accessibility trickle through via the groovy “Ooh Baby” intro to “Sky Drool” and the lovely closer, “Die Allman Bruder.” These can be viewed as rewards for those tough enough to stick it out, not the best tracks here, though they are exceptional. Given the album’s mere eight-song length, it certainly says something that it can inspire such guttural, love/hate responses. But while Ice Cream Spiritual will be seen by many—and by many I mean most—as a harrowing ordeal, I prefer to think of it as an invigorating, enlightening, and yes, spiritual journey. One that’s not only worthwhile, but essential for one’s growth as an aficionado of music as an art form.