Pontiak Living

[Thrill Jockey; 2010]

Styles: southern rock, stoner rock, folk-metal
Others: Agalloch, Bardo Pond, Sabbath

Realizing the fraternal trio Pontiak had something in common with nu-metal was akin to realizing that one young woman’s ear was actually a grotesquely proportioned older woman’s eyeball: once you notice it, there’s no purging that duality. Which isn’t to say Pontiak’s 2009 release Maker doesn’t remain a venerable shitstorm of fossil-fuel-browned country rock; it’s practically the cream of the crop for that niche, if you know when to put it on. But Pontiak fare much better as dirgey Americana than nu-metal, hardcore, noise, ambient, or even melodic pop. Their narrow scope never mattered one whit, but I guess the best that holistically-minded critics could do was nod and forget. Living is their fidgety and somewhat childish response to being nodded at, and it’s as unsurprising as it is uncalled for.

Every item on the aforementioned laundry list is thinly represented. Pontiak’s publicity emphasizes that this album is labored-over relative to their other work, which should singlehandedly scatter anyone who’s in it for the unblemished “fuck yeah.” Since, like I said, the nu-metal thing is kinda slippery (though, concretely, we do know the album features Earthless’ guitarist), we can start with Pontiak’s newfound truce with melody. Opener “Young” is an awkward little playdate that makes it difficult to take the rest of the album seriously. It just has too many damned notes for the Carney-choir to hit, but after probably about four dozen takes, they finally got ’em all. The result is somewhere between mechanical and cartoonish. Worse, the vocals protrude so much from the rest of the song that it’s impossible to confuse for a guitar overtone, which was one of the best qualities of Maker’s doomy incantations. It’s weird to assert that they’re better off without any constipated focus on melody, but really the best that the sheer songwriting gets here is “This Is Living,” a scarcely above-average rocker.

Clearly, these guys get off on 11-torqued amps, to that unhealthy sheer-sound extent that’s always threatened to do them in if they slowed the momentum a sec to ponder. So they’re revealing their hand a little bit when on the second fucking track they proceed to batter (think: desensitize) the listener with a heavy, sludgy guitar — allowing it to trail off for almost 20 seconds — over and over again for a minute and a half. That’s the song. This kind of technique works great in Adult Swim-style comedy, but it predictably detracts from the rest of the album’s punch. When, after a doodled intro, “Lemon Lady” tries to slime you yet again, the joke’s just not funny anymore. Nor are the infuriating, watch-checking pauses between words in “Algiers By Day,” woe unto those who try to track its grammar: “How… can… she… stay… awake… when… all… we… do… is… dream… and… sing… to…” These guys were never compelling lyricists, and this is emblematic of Living’s central flaw: it draws too much attention to musical aspects that the Carneys never had going for them.

All of which probably means that Living is best seen as a transitional album. No one knows better than a flash-in-the-pan Maker fan that you really can’t go backwards with this stuff, nor expect Pontiak to. In that light, I’d be missing the point if I reviled the spacious acoustic-plus-organ tracks, like the closer, that litter the album. They’re nice — nothing particularly impressive, if strangely hypnotic — but more crucially, they show that the Carney Bros have certain interests that never would have occurred to anyone when Maker came out. On this outing, their eyes were bigger than their stomachs; they second-guessed their own talents; they let the studio do the talking; and so on. But if they really wanted to systematically reinvent themselves from their hedonistic roots, there’s no doubt they could sculpt something subversive and massive. Let’s just cross our fingers in hopes that their brains aren’t as permanently cooked as this particular misstep.

Links: Pontiak - Thrill Jockey

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