It’s a good rule of thumb for social media that if you’re getting something for free, you’re probably the product, but what’s the dynamic like when you’re the one getting the product but none of the enjoyment? Such is listening to Hobo Rocket, an occasionally thrilling record that feels like it was more fun to make than it is to listen to. It’s a shame, to be honest; in the lead-up to Hobo dropping, Pond frontman Nick Allbrook wound down his role in sister band Tame Impala, and with this album coming on the heels of last year’s promising, freewheeling, but unfocused Beard, Wives, Denim, it felt like Pond had it in them to be a concise, freaky, counterpoint to Lonerism’s steely hypnagogia. Yet, here they just feel like The Attractions next to Elvis Costello. The execution may be on point, but the personality is absent, the ideas are fewer, and the experience is all-up flat, no matter how raw and flashy the playing.
I mean, as a frontman, Nick Allbrook is someone that you have to experience — he’s like a five-foot something Mick Jagger, and how many of those are around anymore? — but on record here, he often feels plain invisible, buried under empty phrases, distortion, and bongwater. “Xanman” is massive when he belts out the opening phrases, like Harrison’s “Wah-Wah” turned into a steamroller, but as it drags into the third minute of riffage, it empties out; “Aloneaflameaflowe” doesn’t make it that far. When it’s ballad time on “O Dharma,” he’s mostly incomprehensible while his buddies make beautiful noises, and like a mass in another language, you’re really only going to get out what you’re prepared to put in. Partly due to the preponderance of carefully sculpted cathedrals of Riff and partly because of the repetitive-feelin’ structures housing them (verse/riff/verse/riff), Allbrook never gets the chance to take it all by the scruff of the neck. For a band that was taking NME by stealth bytaking the whole jam-band-with-frontman thing to exciting, weird new places, they’ve taken a step backwards into anonymity.
It’s telling the most engaging presence comes when local Perth freaknik Cowboy John turns up on the title track to holler something about star riding over a one-chord sitar-led freakout akin to something off George Harrison’s still-really-great Wonderwall. Beard, Wives, Denim sprawl was aided by Watson and Ryan popping up for turns at the mic, but here it’s nearly all-‘Brook; there’s barely any of the invigorating mass vocals that popped up all over the predecessor too. After B,W,D, it felt like Pond had two paths open — one was honing and refining their burgeoning pop instincts and the other was burrowing further into the jam, and this feels like a losing hedge. Closer “Midnight Mass” stresses the point by reminding everyone that Nick can write a melody before blowing it out of the water, lumping the song with the rest of the turgid verse/riff/verse/riff stuff here. For a band that’s been (not-super-correctly) flagged as the freaky sibling, you find yourself waiting long here for the freak flag to unfurl, but it never happens. Ultimately, Allbrook best sums up Hobo Rocket himself on “O Dharma”: “If you motherfuckers don’t like it/ You can all get out” is right, since too often this feels like being at a party where they can keep on having a perfectly good time without you.