Pond's debut had been unabashedly poppy in parts, and merely happy in others. The songs brimmed with wide-eyed optimism and reflected a band who seemed entirely enamored to be putting out a record. The photo on the back featured all the band members smiling, looking goofy. The front cover was one of the most colorful to ever come out on Sub Pop. Maybe anywhere. Even the toy featured on the inside cover was happy-go-lucky.
This must have been the "Joy" in The Practice of Joy Before Death.
On their sophomore release, the band went hardcore minimal for the mostly-white cover art, not even listing song titles on the back. The CD itself is marked only with a stripe, and Campbell and Brady look exhausted in the photos on the inside. Clearly there was a shift.
I don't know who hurt Charlie Campbell in between the band's debut and this record, but she should be both scolded for bringing the guy down, and thanked (it's been long enough now) for forcing Charlie to write the most personal - and best - songs of his career. Brady is at his peak here, too, though his songs are more about things than people, and don't carry quite the same level of moroseness that Campbell's do. It's actually good, because the comparatively peppy nature of Brady's songs make a nice respite from the beautiful intensity of Campbell's heartbroken tales of repressed anger. Or something to that effect.
I'm jumping around a little here.
I was a little out of the loop in '95 - broke, stoned a lot, not keeping up with music as well as I should have been. At some point during this haze I ran into my brother and he asked me if I had heard the new Pond record yet. I said I had not. "Dude." He said. He hooked me up with a copy and I listened to it and I heard exactly what he was talking about. It was incredible. Not what we expected at all. Better. It was all the good things about Pond, taken and warped and sent in an entirely different direction. As soon as I had the money, I bought a copy on CD and played it constantly. It was mind-blowingly good. I still get excited when I hear the muffled TV sample that comes before the first chords and first lyric ("Tar-baked asphalt...") to "Sideroad," the first song on the record.
It's hard to gauge the response to this record, because Pond was never a big enough band to warrant the kind of reviews that were major enough to still exist on the web these days, but I've come across blurbs that complain about the lo-fi nature of the recordings here. I think, again, it was just another effort to shift the feel of the music the band was making, and it works wonders for the songs on this record. Not that the recording is even that lo-fi. A good amount of the tracks here were recorded at home, but they don't sound noticeably depleted of anything a "real" studio atmosphere would provide. Instead, they sound highly personal and, though loose in parts, very deliberate.
Campbell penned nine of the fourteen tracks here, and co-wrote another one ("Mubby's Theme," which he sings, which makes me think it was mostly his), so he commands the feel of this record a bit more than Brady. Like I mentioned, a handful of his songs seem to be about his relationship troubles, and they make for some of his most - and pardon me for saying this - introspective lyrics. "Happy Cow Farm Family" and "Union" are sad as shit lyrically, but the songs themselves feature huge choruses that betray the delicate nature of the verses. It's great. "Patience" is just plain soul-crushing, a song that feels like it starts in the middle and ends when he gets too exhausted to continue. Yowsa.
Campbell's songs that aren't so dour are just as good: "Carpenter Ant" and "Artificial Turf" are as strange as this record gets, and the fact that they're right next to each other is a great move. Campbell's vocals on each are markedly different, and it's really interesting how their juxtaposition makes both of them stronger. "Glass Sparkles In Their Hair" is one of his most rambunctious songs ever, and it's incredible. And then there's the album's closer, the strangely fun "Gagged and Bound," which wraps things up on a lighter note that you don't see coming.
Brady's songs, though there's only four of 'em, are fantastic. "Sideroad," "Sundial," and "Maginifier" all follow the same basic path, but they're each very different. "Sundial," especially, is just an incredibly catchy tune. And the rumbling bass at the beginning is nuts. But it's "Rock Collection," the almost-ten-minute slow-and-steady rambler, that still holds the title as the only "epic" Pond song. I always forget how long it is, and it never seems like ten minutes go by when I'm listening to it. That's a good sign.
As you can tell, I really dig this record. There are a lot of Pond fans that cry because the band was never popular enough, but whatever. I'm sure the right people heard this record. I know a handful of folks who love it, and come on: this isn't the type of music that's going to sell a ton of records. I get it. In a perfect world, this would be remembered as one of the best records of the 90's. And it should be. It's on my list. It's the band's crowing achievement, no doubt about it. It's a shame that more people don't embrace its brilliance, but I've always liked that it's my thing. Our thing. One of the best sophomore releases I can name off the top of my head.
It should be on your shelf. It'll up your taste in music just by being in your vicinity. It really is that good.
A note for Pond nerds: "Van" is a sweet song on this record that I somehow forgot to mention. If you listen to the end of "Wheel" on Pond's debut, you can hear a backwards recording of Charlie playing it on an acoustic. Nerd on.
And, yes: I have this on CD, LP, and cassette.