Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pond - The Practice of Joy Before Death (CD, LP, 1995)

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.



Biff Pocaroba said...

Like my rambling comments on Pond's self-titled album, I may need 2 posts to capture all of my nerdy thoughts. This may be my vote for greatest album ever recorded. There. I said it. For me anyways, this album is as perfect as perfect can be.

1995 was an incredible year in music. This being the case, I know I let this album sit on the shelves for a while before buying it. Reviews at the time said it was choppy, poorly recorded, blah blah blah. I'll never forget the first time I listened to this. I finally purchased it and then listened to it on our family room stereo at night, alone. I didn't mean to just sit there and listen to it but I did. I seriously just laid on the couch and listened to the entire cassette. It blew my mind. Honestly. It was 10 times better than all of the idiot reporters claimed it to be. Hell, it was genius. I proceeded to listen to it non-stop for the ensuing months, overanalyzing every nuance of each song.

And part of me still does. I have somehow never grown tired of this and at some point it gained legendary status for me and a small group of my friends. Did I mention that I was in a Pond cover band? Matt Fargo and I officially formed Gagged And Bound sometime in late '96, a strictly Pond cover band, with him on guitar and me on drums. He was Charlie and I was Chris. We even recorded some tunes. Even after we became a different band we would still play Pond covers. I know that we were especially proud of our versions of "Moth," "Artificial Turf," and "Foamy." In Pretty To Look At's later days we used to open our sets with a cover of Mood Paint's (Pond before they were Pond) "Cracks and Swirls." A pretty sweet move if I do say so myself.

Fargo and I used to discuss and analyze every aspect of this album. I'll never forget when we realized that he had never heard "Happy Cow Farm Family" or "Patience" because they weren't included on the vinyl. Pretty hilarious and also an awful crime.

How could you not do a song by song for this one? I am going to continue to nerd out on the comment below...

Biff Pocaroba said...

A quick song by song:

"Sideroad"- I, like you, always get a tinge of excitement when I hear that muffled radio. This is a perfect opener. I always found it odd, sequencing-wise, that they would opt for a Brady tune to kickoff the album since he only has 4 but it is the perfect opener, and lets you know that this album is going to sound much, much different.

"Mubby's Theme"- Is it just me, or is this about a frog? Either way, this is a sweet little song that I seems to be forgotten amongst their top work.

"Union"- You alluded to Campbell's heartbreak, and it comes out here. The lyrics here are somewhat surreal and graphic and really create an eerie mood for the song. "Where they lay/bodies aren't made to bend that way" has always stood out as a genius/creepy lyric to me. This is also one of two songs to end with "One things true/I loved you", a completely original and awesome move on Campbell's part. If you were wondering if someone broke his heart before, this has to solidify it.

"Magnifier"- The hits keep coming. This song was always awesome live and seemed, to me at least, to be a holdover from their earlier work. The Widgets took their label name from this song. I am pretty sure that this is also about Brady rock collecting. Although I could be really crazy.

"Patience"- This song is perfect. Perfect. This song captures being a heartbroken NW hipster more than any other song every could. It is perfect. Perfect. This is the 2nd song to end with "One thing's true/I loved you." Campbell is really sinking in his heartbreak here and it works.

"Ol' Blue Hair"- This song is also perfect. The lyrics to this are way too good for an obscure Portland band. This is obviously about an old lady that Campbell encountered at a bar. Perfect. When he yells "grave" it makes me smile. The phone ringing in the middle is a brilliant touch.

Biff Pocaroba said...

"Sundial"- This is an incredible tune yet I still have no idea what its all about. "Hail the horse king overgrown with weeds" indeed. The sitar is a nice touch, as is the harmonica in the breakdown. Seriously, this album has so many nice little touches that it amazes me that this album didn't take them years and years to record.

"Glass Sparkles In Their Hair"- This song is nuts. I used to have the video for this on tape and lost it. Youtube still doesn't have it, somehow. It involved a spinning camera and a marching band. Also, Brady had 3 closeups, where in each his mouth would become slightly more bloody, which I thought was awesome. The chorus about Campbell seeing a dead snake in downtown Portland is awesome.

"Van"- Holy crap. I know that someone is a true NW nerd, born and bred, if they love this song. Do you want to know something embarrassing, internet? After I moved to Arizona I was really drunk one night and somehow this song came on in my shuffle and, I shit you not, I actually got teary eyed. It was double effect of the song being so good and making me miss home. This home is that good. Watching Charlie Campbell play this live always made me really happy. Pond, as a band, also really enjoyed this tune.

"Happy Cow Farm Family"- This is like "Patience" part 2. This song makes me want to weep. I know that I have used this song to depress myself whenever girls have not liked me. Poor Charlie. This song is obviously autobiographical, which makes it even more compelling. Maybe the same girl broke Charlie and Pete Krebs' hearts in '95. Its a theory.

"Carpenter Ant"- 2:30 of pure awesomeness. Thank heavens they printed the lyrics for this one.

"Artificial Turf"- I used to worship at the alter of this song. I still do. Campbell is god. It is simple, yet really, really genius. This features the slide guitar trick that the band would really go nuts with on their next album.

"Rock Collection"- You already nailed it with this one. It never feels like 10 minutes. I had a version of this from a KBOO show that was half as long and twice as fast. I guessed that the song's name was "Spirals" using their previous album as a template. The slowed down version is somehow better. Gagged and Bound used to cover this.

"Gagged and Bound"- The perfect ending to a perfect album. Just when you think that Campbell is a serious guy on the verge of suicide, you get this nice little ditty, whose lyrics are genius. I loved the "no wait for testosterone/at the dial-tone/in the morning" connection to the "Moth" single. Campbell, you sweet genius.

And that's it. Possibly the greatest album ever. At least to this NW boy.

d'nsb said...

Great review. Great album. I own a copy on CD since 1995. One hidden treasure in my album collection that pops up in my stereo at least once every two years. Though most of the stuff I digged back in the 90's are way behind me, this album has always stayed with me. Glad to notice another fan.

Unknown said...

So nice to know there's someone out there who loves this record like I do. The poor judgements it received are beyond me. When it came out I was in my early twenties, music maniac/musician with tastes like nobody around me. This one instantly became a touchstone in my Life together with Unwound's "Repetition" the next year. Two ideas of the world so beautiful I would have killed to be a part of somehow.
Now I'm almost 50 and those are still my all time favorite records...