The Ponies, an emerging South African rock band, has released its debut album, Based on an Original Idea, a melange of driving rock, catchy soul, guitar fireworks and textured ballads.
“We are the hole between rock and soul,” vocalist and bass player Lloyd Coutts said of the band which is based in Johannesburg.
The band’s heritage lies in the nascent South African rock music scene, and it draws inspiration from such local luminaries as The Cherry Faced Lurchers, The Gereformeerde Blues Band, Sipho Hotstix Mabuse and Dan Patlansky.
The international artists the band loves include Jimi Hendrix – the song Buster is, in fact, a tribute to Hendrix – Van Morrison, The National, Bombino, Ali Fake Toure, and Okkervil River and The Drive-By Truckers.
With such a wide range of inspirations, it’s natural that the band has a very international style. “We don’t fit into any readily available category, which we hope give us a freshness and broad-ranging appeal,” said guitarist Ryan Norwood-Young, who was also the chief engineer and producer on the project.
The music is rooted in melodic appeal with an overlay of spectacular guitar work. Lead guitarist Richard Jurgens says his aim to capture the definitive heart of original blues music as it has developed out of Africa into the American blues tradition.
Jurgens, a graduate of the South African College of the Arts, began as a violin player but is now focused on the electric guitar. The guitar parts of the songs are a mixture of complex, modal riffs played with a profound expression and emotive nuances.
All members of the band contributed to the song writing, but the majority of songs were written by Coutts, who says of his song writing style: “I like to think of my songs as the musical equivalent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It’s mostly a response to the pure shock of being alive. Hopefully it results in soulful, expressive and relatable music.”
LISTEN TO SOME OF THE BAND’S SONGS
The Anti-Codependency Song, M (One More Week), and Ready for Love all deal with the pain and elation involved in relationships, and particularly, the process of recovering after a breakup. They are love songs for grown-ups.
The songs span the full gamut of tempos and styles, some based on humorous situations, while others are classic ballads. “The song Bonnie No 5 was inspired by a clothing mannequin that was weirdly on stage at one of the venues we played”, says band member Tim Cohen. It turns out all mannequins have a name and a number, and that one was called ‘Bonnie No. 5′.
“We were joking about what it would be like to fall in love this kind of mannequin that you typically see displaying clothes in an apparel store window. We were laughing about how many great advantages that might have, like a consistent attitude, no dramatic walk-outs and no interrupting,” said band Cohen. Ultimately the song suggests this kind of relationship might end up being less than perfect. “Bonnie No. 5 might need to be revived,” the song ends.
The ballads Galaxy Glow and Ulysses add an extra dimension to the album. They are both intensely heartfelt and are convincingly portrayed, and both are sung with great conviction and dexterity by Coutts.
“Galaxy Glow was written for some friends who lost their daughter at the age of 22 to leukaemia. It tries to express the blistering, guttural anger with the world and its gods for the death, but it’s ultimately a redemptive song. Our friends planted a rose garden for their daughter, using the variety called ‘Galaxy Glow’, hence the title of the song,” said Coutts.
Ulysses is a ballad about being parted and yearning for the nourishment of personal contact. It’s a pastiche of the Greek myth of Ulysses’ trial-filled voyage to his home Ithaca after the Trojan war, says Cohen.
The album also contains one purely instrumental track, “Waiting for Ricus”, written while drummer Ricus Reeders was out of town for three months.
It was designed to test Reeders with a mid-song tempo change and a complicated 6/4 beat in the second section, which he handles with aplomb. The drumming is a feature of the album and is deliberately prominent on all tracks. The driving drumming is particularly prominent on So Divine, an Led Zeppelin-styled “dirty rock song” about addiction, says Coutts.
The album is rounded off with a meandering, circular and evocative road trip track, reminiscent of the way the mind wanders while travelling along long South African roads, particularly through the Karoo desert. The guitar work by Richard Jurgens is particularly fine on this track, capturing the sense of personal zen that sometimes accompanies driving long distances.
The album is set to make a great contribution to the independent rock tradition in South Africa, a genre that has always had widespread appeal within the hugely broad range of music styles in South Africa. It is not only based on an original idea, but it is also totally original.