We’ve all been through romantic situations where “should have known better” comes to mind. We make mistakes, but often pray we won’t become defined by them. This is a playlist full of songs which ride that roller coaster from the highs of first love to the lows of wishing we’d just said no before having one’s heart ripped to shreds became a legitimate possibility. Highlights include “Flowers,” from Anais Mitchell’s acclaimed Hadestown folk-opera, “Homage for the Suffering” from a stunningly under-appreciated Matthew Perryman Jones effort, and “El Matador,” one of the best soMngs from Semisonic I can almost guarantee you’ll never have heard. That, and you can expose yourself to a number of artists on the edge of fame who sorely deserve a wider audience — Meaghan Smith deserves to be mentioned as one of the stronger “vaudeville pop” vocalists working the pop scene, and Diane Birch’s “Fire Escape” sorely needs a cult following.
A decade and a half after making early waves in
New York’s mid-90s alt-rock scene, the Pontoons return
with a new single and what may be the longest-gestating
debut album of the era. Was it worth the wait?
Short answer: Definitely.
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4/2/2012 Update: The video at the bottom of this page is the brand-new official video for “Antidote,” directed by Tim Ticehurst, rather than merely the audio for the song.
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In Billboard’s November 1994 issue, Larry Flick wrote that a certain indie-pop band from New York City had “one of the best debuts of the year” with their first single “Juncos and Robins.”
The Pontoons, by that point, had built their reputation through three years of steady touring around New York City. So to the industry reps who continuously trolled such clubs trying to find the next Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins, there was every indication the band was set to carve out a niche in the burgeoning alt-rock scene.
“At the time we were playing out in NYC and the Northeast more [often] than we found ourselves in the studio,” says drummer Christian Harper. “This was mostly due to our efforts to build a local following, but also because we were young and didn’t have the finances to bankroll an entire album.”
Choosing instead to focus on improving their live shows, while building strong word of mouth via college radio for “Juncos and Robins” and “Landslide,” they eventually fell through the cracks. Without ever recording a full-length album, the Pontoons broke up in 1996.
“In retrospect we probably should have focused more on recording,” Harper says. “But we were drawn by the thrill of playing gigs and loved having that direct interaction [with fans].”
With timing being everything – their brief “heyday” preceded the mp3 revolution by half a decade – the Pontoons seemed destined to remain a footnote in the overcrowded historical landscape which is the 90s alternative movement, their blend of REM-inspired jangle-pop to remain virtually out of print. And that’s how it might have remained, were it not for a chance reunion a few years ago.
“We’d rallied around the idea of working together and producing the full-length album we never made,” Harper says. “Tom and I were able to reconnect with our original recording engineer Sal Mormando, and when we shared our plan he was excited about the idea of working with us again. Everybody loves a comeback story, right? Regardless, we’re having a great time and have realized how much we missed making music together.”
Mormando has produced albums for Patti Smith, Billy Squire and Dayna Kurtz among many others, and is currently mixing the upcoming Pontoons full-length, keeping their original sound at the forefront. The latest single, “Antidote” (which you can view a video for below) showcases the duo’s jangle-pop guitar arpeggios, tight rhythms and Tom Hunt’s distinct vocals for three minutes which barely whet the appetite before the obligatory repeat listens. It is a sound as eerily reminiscent of REM as it is more obscure early-90s alt fare like Trip Shakespeare, an early forebear of what became Semisonic.
But that’s what fans who heard the band 15 years ago came to expect, and the new single blends seamlessly with the music of their past while suggesting at the same time that the future looks incredibly bright.
Timing may indeed be everything. With this much talent coming together to produce the album which almost never was, the stars seem to be ready to align in the Pontoons’ favor. With any luck “Antidote” will prove to be exactly that, a refreshing counterbalance to the decidedly lacking state of pop music thus far in 2012. Their current plan is to self-release the album later this summer along with another single, and if the music remains as strong as our appetizer, expect to hear the praise spread rapidly.
Year of the Album — #061
Matthew Sweet – “Modern Art” (2011, Missing Piece)
I enjoy my Matthew Sweet music in much the same way I was enamored with the songwriting of Semisonic’s Dan Wilson. Both men recorded power pop music in the nineties and were unafraid to push the envelope sonically, regardless of what that might have meant for their eventual long-term success. Sweet, in particular, has built his career by uncompromisingly chasing his own unique muse, making music his own way. For that, I’m certain there are many who would follow his music to the ends of the earth.
His eleventh studio album, Modern Art, continues in that same vein. The album, due out September 27th, lives up to its name through the number of twists and turns the music takes en route to its eventual destination. This is not music that will be easily digestable for those unschooled in what Matthew Sweet’s music has become post-Girlfriend, but for those who take the plunge, this is pop music of the most original, invigorating kind. From the opening strains of “Oh, Oldendaze,” which channels Gary Jules as much as it does the music of the Byrds, it’s clear Matthew Sweet is back doing what he does best.
But he’s not afraid to jerk the wheel, so to speak. “She Walks The Night” opens with thirty seconds of experimental electronic sounds, drum patter and synths running wild, only to morph into a sunny pop melody which fits in as well with the sixties-era pop it emulates as it does with the many purveyors of similar music this decade, Fountains of Wayne and that ilk. Midway through the track he again removes the pop sheen and lets the confusion of the early moments return, only to then allow us another return to the gloss of the hook. It’s a confusing experiment, and it is sure to disorient casual listeners who may not stick around to play along. But the song works just the same, and it proves Sweet knows what he’s doing as he tinkers with the workings of pop’s winning formula.
As a whole, Modern Art is a winning example of modern pop experimentation done by a master of the craft. These are songs for songwriters to pore over in the hopes that someday they might emulate Sweet in the same way he breaks down sixties power-pop and rebuilds it to be his own. This is definitely a slow-burning keeper. What more can you ask for as a music fan?