Stampeding Through the Stars:
Ponderosa’s Interstellar Overdrive

The contrast is alarming, between the first album and this new one. If you haven’t seen them play in a good long while, you’ll likely be shocked as well. Pleasantly so.

Released in January 2011, Ponderosa’s full-length debut, Moonlight Revival, introduced a group that seemed intent on re-stoking the embers of pickup-truck Southern rock, apparently unaware that most current radio-ready Nashvegas country music does much the same. It was an adequate record but by no means extraordinary. Blandly recorded, with no real distinguishing elements, it sold a few thousand copies but never made much impact, emotional or otherwise. There was little reason to foster eagerness toward a follow-up.

But then they went and turned into Band of Horses. Okay, not really, but they absorbed a cornucopia of new sounds, expanded their canvas, grabbed the controls and launched their sound into the heavens. Recorded largely under the spacious direction of producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) in upstate New York, Pool Party, out July 31st on New West Records, might as well be the work of a new band, even though there’ve been no lineup upheavals. It seems certain to perk up ears indifferent to Moonlight Revival.

“Not to bash [the first album] at all, but none of us listen to that record,” confesses singer and guitarist Kalen Nash. “But as far as giving us somewhat of a livelihood, it made that happen, and it definitely made the relationship with New West happen, which…is the best thing we could’ve ever asked for. I mean, we’re all completely broke, but in the same sense, they believe in us, and they wanna keep putting out records, so it’s a really good place… I feel like with this [new] record, we all got to blow our load. I mean, we all got to play with toys until we were sick. And it was just like, every idea that you had, Dave was like, ‘Bring it on!’ Everything was an option. Where the last record was not. The beginning of one of these songs, we were like, ‘This sounds cool off an iPhone,’ and so Dave was like, ‘Alright, record it off the iPhone.’ And then we used that as an intro. In the last scenario, that never would’ve happened in a million years.”

“We also lived in the studio, which was nice,” adds keyboardist John Dance. “The first time around, we were in a very nice Nashville studio. We clocked in at ten o’clock in the morning and clocked out at 8 o’clock. [With Fridmann], it’s like a cabin, and there’s an upstairs, with bedrooms, and we lived there. We had 24-hour access to all his toys, to go and fucking jam whenever the fuck we wanted to. So there were a lot of times we’d start a song on Monday, and Dave would leave around 10 or 11 at night, and then we would stay there and jam until four or five in the morning. So everything that got recorded was very fresh. And very inspired. Which did not happen the first time around.”

You can totally tell. The first album sounds like you’re checking into a dentist’s office. This one has it’s own atmosphere, like you’re sprinting along the edge of the world gazing at the glory of the universe around you. It has an expanse to it. Call it the Fridmann Effect, if you will, but to the band’s credit, they produced four of the tracks themselves with engineer Jon Ashley at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Recording Studio (rather appropriate, considering the dollops of reverb used), later mixed by Tony Doogan in Scotland, and I challenge anyone to detect any sonic difference.

Pool Party spreads its wings right out of the cage, as singing birds lead into the resonating, dewy chime of dawn’s guitars, Nash’s voice announcing, “Here I am born…” The album’s glow of rebirth extends into his lyrics, not only thematically as on that opening track, but also in their overall poetic effectiveness. They’re simple yet evocative, rarely explicitly spelling out what can be more efficiently hinted at. And the harmonies between Nash and bassist/vocalist Jonathan “JT” Hall are nothing short of tremendous. As “Here I Am Born” builds and blooms into a thing of wonder, climaxing in a cascade of feverish drums stampeding through the stars, it’s clear we’re riding a different horse this time. And the mood draws us forward. “Black Hill Smoke” sounds like a slow dance on the moon. “Navajo,” the radio single, is as enigmatic as it is irresistible. “Never Come Back” skirts the fringes of tropicalia without succumbing to a bad trend. “The Nile” rises to a stunning cloud-piercing plateau before dropping off mid-song into what sounds like the band chanting the title of the song over and over, before taking off again, “space echoes her cry,” indeed. The thundering cluster of sounds threatens to obscure the repeating mantra of the plodding but powerful  “Get a Gun,” but maybe that’s the point. “On Your Time” rings its way into the stratus before settling into a lovely piano coda. And so on. I guess what I’m saying is, there’s not a weak track on this thing. It deserves to be heard, far and wide. And loud.

“I think the change [in sound] came from us touring,” offers drummer Darren Dodd. “I’ve said it before, but everyone started playing each other bands that they actually listened to… We weren’t listening to fucking Creedence.”

Guitarist Kris Sampson points out that they actively sought Fridmann to produce Pool Party. “When they asked us for a dream producer, he was the only guy we put on the list. So we got really lucky with that… It’s kind of like a ‘dream come true’ record. Just being able to work with Dave, being in complete control artistically, and then having people embrace it, all around it’s really a dream come true. I don’t think any of us thought it was going to morph into this. But thank God.”

Ponderosa coalesced under somewhat random circumstances some half-dozen years ago. Sampson and Hall were playing in a standard-issue rock band called Variac, and Sampson was working with producer Don McCollister at Nickel and Dime Studio in Avondale Estates. Barely out of high school, Nash would stop in at N&D to record songs as a solo act. Eventually the three would end up crashing at the studio’s upstairs apartment and practicing during off hours, working up the songs that became Ponderosa’s earliest material. Dance came on board shortly thereafter, following stints in Sovus Radio and Ski Club. And, believe it or not, Ponderosa’s first drummer was none other than The Coathangers’ Stephanie Luke.

“She, I think, was interning for me at Nickel and Dime,” remembers Sampson. “And just by being there, proximity, we were like, ‘Hey, wanna drum for us?’”

Nash: “It was incredible, because she used to get mad at us if we didn’t spit on her during a show.”

Sampson: “She was like, ‘I don’t want you to spit on me, but if you feel the need, spit on me!’”

“Going back to our old record,” Hall pipes in, “when we went in to record the song ‘Devil on my Shoulder,’ the original [demo] recording was with Stephanie. And it had so much fucking balls! We were all wasted when we recorded it, out of our minds, and we recorded it in one take, and it was this sloppy punk rock song, and when we were in Nashville trying to re-record it, Joe [Chiccarelli], the producer, was like, ‘Man, it just doesn’t have the spirit it had on the first recording!’”

“I will secede if she does want to come back,” promises Dodd. But there’s no need for that. Darren is one of the most powerful, precise, yet subtly improvisational skin pounders I’ve seen in a long time. It’s incredible to watch him, and he really shines on this new material. He freely admits it was the strength of Ponderosa’s new songs that led him to join the group full-on after years of splitting his time between them and Butch Walker’s band.

“They kinda just stole my heart. I was telling Butch this. Butch was kinda my wife, Ponderosa was my mistress. But especially last year, making this decision – am I going to move to LA and keep playing with Butch, or do I stay home and keep playing with Ponderosa? – I heard some of these new songs that they were doing separate from me in the studio, with Kris, and I was like, ‘I can’t leave.’ I saw the beginnings of what this record would be. The song ‘Navajo’ was finished, lyrics and all that shit, and I didn’t know it was gonna be Dave Fridmann, but I knew this was gonna be something I wanted to not miss out on. I was just really excited about it, like a teenage boy again… That’s also around the same time we started turning each other on to music. I really enjoyed everything they’ve been through. It’s a struggle. We are fucking broke. But I mean, it just kinda spoke to that little kid in me that wanted to stop going to school in sixth grade. I just wanted to be with these guys playing music. It just became obvious that that was more important than anything else I was pursuing. It kinda turned me back into an artist, I think.”

Finally, not to be overlooked in all of this hoopla over Pool Party, Nash unveiled his solo album Ukred this spring, the initial release on New West’s Athens-based subsidiary Normaltown Records. The other members of Ponderosa contribute to the recording, but it’s a decidedly more intimate, direct and sonically down-to-earth presentation of Kalen’s songs, although it still glistens with a certain desolate spookiness. His hushed, stirring originals carry the album, but it’s his version of a song written by his great grandfather, “Don’t You Love Me Baby,” that grabs your attention at the outset. It’s obviously from some other time altogether.

“All his songs were like that. He was a really great storyteller. All of his brothers were bootleggers. They all made whiskey, and my grandfather used to run whiskey for ‘em, so he just loves all that kind of folklore. His name was Euquid, but everybody called him Ukred,” Nash explains, revealing the origin of the album’s title and cover photo. “He was a musician and songwriter, but he was just a pig farmer, and lived out in Danielsville, where I’m from. Actually I live on the farm now, with my wife.

“[Euquid] died in ’91,” Nash continues, “and a few of the songs are recorded on a tape recorder… But right before he died, my cousin Ryan just gave him a stack of songs, and got him to kinda sing the melodies and the lyrics. And so that’s where [‘Don’t You Love Me Baby’] came from, it’s one of the tapes I have of him singing the lyrics of that song, and then I just took what he was singing and made the music out of it… I kind of am really proud to be able to let people know that he even existed. That’s what’s really cool to me.”