Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tired Pony

When Chris Cornell and the non-Zack de la Rocha remainder of Rage Against the Machine teamed up to form Audioslave in 2004, one music observer commented the resulting band sounded just like you'd expect: Chris Cornell singing with Range Against the Machine. Likewise, the reaction to Tired Pony, the collaboration between Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody and Iain Archer, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck – and fellow R.E.M.-associate Scott McCaughey – and Belle & Sebastian drummer Richard Colburn comes across precisely as one would anticipate: Snow Patrol playing with R.E.M. with a touch of Belle & Sebastian, as evidenced on their debut album, The Place We Ran From, released September 28.

The most distinctive aspect of the new outfit's sound, though, is that this is unmistakably a guitar band. Which isn't to say that, by comparison, Snow Patrol, or especially R.E.M., are not. Nonetheless, while the former are known for their anthemic pop, and the latter for their grandfathers of alt-rock status and Michael Stipe's tortured poet act, the six string is highlighted here in ways unheard in their formative groups. All the band's members save for Colburn are guitarists (although producer Jacknife Lee, who produced earlier releases for both groups and was likely responsible for making the project a reality, handles the bass lines), yielding layered and multi-dimensional guitar approach.

Collection opener "Northwestern Skies" eases into the material, with Lightbody delivering his haunting baritone over barn-floor acoustic guitars and mandolins. It's an appropriately damp and hesitant number for the fall. And despite the imagery that its heartland-flavored title suggests, its follow-up "Get On the Road" is no "Take It Easy"-style highway jaunt, but the musical equivalent of a Cormac McCarthy novel: stark and threatening, highlighted all the more by Zooey Deschanel's guest vocals, which appear throughout the record. With talk of the dustbowl and "the engine noise like an alarm," its rusty lyrical canvass is highlighted by the guitarists' solemn figures.

The mood starts to shift with the mandolin-driven "Point Me at Lost Lands." It's a front porch jam session with clear direction and warm harmonies. Here, in particular, Jacknife Lee's stripped-down production style is an obvious asset, as nothing sounds worse than overproduced folk-rock. The trend continues on the lead single and most listenable track, "Dead American Writers," where the joint Snow Patrol-R.E.M. influences emerge, including Buck's familiar Byrds-inspired, jangly Rickenbacker. However, it feels a bit brief at only 2:34; some additional fleshing-out could have built upon solid lyricism such as, "I've been choking on the bones and tears / You are the smoking gun that thrown the years."

Meanwhile, in such a guitar-focused ensemble, its natural that some 12-string material would find its way into the 10-song effort. Such is the case on the slow-building ballad, "That Silver Necklace," as Buck and McCaughey supply a full dose of 24 strings to back Lightbody's tempered, but convincing vocals. Likewise, more of Buck's early-R.E.M. era style appears on closing number, "Pieces," which would have little trouble finding a place on Fables of the Reconstruction. Lightbody, in turn, delivers his take on the smoky, bass range of The National's Matt Berninger in "The Good Book."

Come for: "Dead American Writers"
Stay for: "Point Me at Lost Lands"
You'll be surprised by: "Get on the Road"

P.S. Michael Stipe recently sat in with the band in New York to add vocals on "The Good Book."

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