What most might regard as a sudden change in musical direction between Southern-twinged indie outfit Ponderosa’s first two LPs was actually about four to six years in the making. The songs that would end up on their 2011 debut LP, Moonlight Revival, were toured, performed and exhausted over that period of time, and the evolution was gradual rather than a total 180.
“It might feel abrupt to the public, but for us, it could not feel more natural,” says frontman Kalen Nash.
Nash said that he and band members John Dance, Jonathan Hall, Kris Sampson and Darren Dodd felt ready to form a new musical identity and make a new statement once they got in the studio to record their follow-up to Moonlight Revival. The recording of that album felt like an ultimatum, like they either had to do what the producer wanted or they wouldn’t have a record—not a great position to be in as a band, regardless of how long you’ve been around. Though thankful for the experience, they were ready to do their own thing on LP number two.
“I don’t really know if the first record was a real portrait of the band in its entirety,” Nash says. It solidified their resolve to only make the music that felt authentic and true to them from that point forward. This, as demonstrated by rock history, is usually about the point that bands go from good to great (The Beatles were a boy band once, you know).
Whereas Moonlight Revival echoed the Southern rock greats, Pool Party embarks on entirely new territory—more anthemic, more goosebump-inducing, less geographically restricting. It isn’t centered in Southern sounds so much as the sounds of some place more ethereal and spiritual. At times it’s gentle, at other times assertive.
Make no mistake, however: this is a record meant to be played loud, to bathe the listener in sound from the very first track. Producer Dave Fridmann was number one on Ponderosa’s wish list for the second record, and they were surprised to find out he wanted to work with them as much as they did with him. Fridmann has an unabashed affinity for loud music, which is fitting for the band. “One of Dave [Fridmann]’s goals in his life is to make a recording that will blow up someone’s speakers,” says Nash.
But loud is not all they are; the band uses dynamics to great effect on Pool Party—seemingly a lost art in modern music. The opening track, “Here I Am Born,” is a slow build over about four minutes. It starts with birds singing, almost making you strain to hear what the first 11 seconds are playing. But once the 12th second hits, it sounds like Nash and Co. are playing in a canyon surrounded by nature. The song continues to build in intensity and emotion until the tension releases with one triumphant, rung-out chord. A journey in a song. And that’s just the album opener.
Long nights spent letting headlights lead them to the next city on tour have fostered something of a competition between the band members: who can get in the driver’s seat of the tour van and blow everyone away with his music pick? “We are always trying to be the person to…play a new record first that no one in the van has heard. You wait for everyone to look at each other and say, ‘Who is this? This is amazing!’” Nash says. During one such touring stretch, the band’s admiration of the sonic quality of The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin sealed the deal. It’s what made Fridmann come to mind for Pool Party, and thankfully, Fridmann took a very hands-off approach to producing, as opposed to Ponderosa’s experience on Moonlight Revival.
“That was the funnest part of this experience. There were no boundaries. We knew we had a time frame, but [Fridmann] did not care. He just wanted to have fun and make something new. In those days, it made the previous five years of work with no pay worth it. I can safely say it was the most inspiring time we have ever had as a band. Everyone was like a child with an infinite world around them,” says Nash.
That childlike fascination is plainly evident on the album. It harkens to the echo-laden harmonizing vocals and guitars of indie contemporaries Fleet Foxes, but with a splash of humidity and sweet tea that makes this particular brand of dream rock their own.
Though this is only Ponderosa’s second full-length, there’s no reason to believe their musical identity will stay rooted where it currently is. “We are constantly inspired by everything and everyone around us all the time and we never want to stop changing or learning,” says Nash.