ALBUM REVIEW: PONY - ORVILLE PECK

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I’ll admit that if Orville Peck were to solicit participants in a focus group for his music and aesthetic sensibility, I would be the ideal candidate. If the enigmatic Toronto artist has a target demographic, I exemplify it. For a lesbian with equal admiration for 80s post-punk and classic country & western, the prospect of a musician who evokes the sounds of both Patsy Cline and The The, enveloped together in a lush queer sensibility, is nothing short of a miracle.

Peck’s debut album, Pony, which was released this March, is a magnificent, compelling twelve-song manifesto of the artist’s influences. Each song is clearly steeped in the work of its progenitors but is also clearly stamped with Peck’s own unique signature. The first, “Dead of Night,” opens with a reverb-laden, twangy guitar plucked against a bare backdrop that is soon hung with light percussion and Peck’s resonant voice. It’s a song suited to its title, evoking carefree summer nights with earnest catchphrases reminiscent of early Lana Del Rey (“Baby let’s get high,” “We laugh until we cry”). The simple verses build to a chorus that puts Peck’s stunning vocals front and center; “See the boys as they walk on by,” he sings, stretching the first word over seven syllables with the dramatic slipperiness of a 50s crooner. The lyric alludes to the song’s professed subject matter--gay male sex workers, who rarely find a place in the lyrics of romantic summer pop songs.

Nods to gay narratives appear throughout the album, generally with the poignancy and veiling associated with these stories as they appear in the ostensibly closeted world of the cowboy. “From the way that we said goodbye, I knew I’d never see you again,” Peck sings on “Winds Change.” The sensuous “Big Sky” lays out its poignant sentiment clearly: “Heartbreak is a warm sensation / When the only feeling that you know is fear.”

Pony is laden with skillful imitations; “Kansas (Remembers Me Now)” and “Roses Are Falling,” with their slide guitar and cloying vocals, wouldn’t sound a bit out of place on an eerie doo-wop record from David Lynch’s personal jukebox. “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)” is, as its parenthetical title suggests, a clear-cut Country-n-Western novelty song out of the Eddy Arnold tradition, complete with whistling, rattlesnake references, and whip-crack and gunshot sound effects.

These songs are delightful and clever, but the best tracks on the album are those that defy the precise guidelines of their musical sources and bleed across genre borders. Perhaps the strongest of these is the infectiously catchy “Turn to Hate.” Peck doesn’t stray from mid-century country here, even punctuating one chorus with an emphatic “Yeehaw!”, but the song also calls to mind the energy of 80s alt-rock with its simple, punky drums and head-banging lyrical hook. The guitar sound on “Turn to Hate,” as on much of the album, toes the line between New Wave chorus effects and country twang, reminding us that these genres are perhaps not as distant as strict musical classification might lead us to believe.

A photo of Peck graces the cover of Pony, though his face remains obscured: against a red velvet backdrop, he wears a fringed black leather mask that winks at bondage gear as well as western wear, and that leaves only his bright blue eyes exposed. The mask has become Peck’s signature look, and he hasn’t appeared onstage or in videos without it. Such a disguise implies, perhaps, that Peck is choosing to buck contemporary culture’s emphasis on publicity and confessionalism. His music certainly calls back to a bygone era, though it is also almost inextricably of the moment. The titling of Mitski’s 2018 indie darling Be the Cowboy and the smash-hit success of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” are only the most obvious instances of the current embrace of country music and Western aesthetic sensibilities by youth culture. Like so many of the most interesting and fun queer cultural products, Pony is self-aware in its layers of appreciative imitation; Peck’s music references not just 50s pop and country, but the 1980s revival of those genres (the Cramps, Chris Isaak) and their late-2010s internet embrace. Pony is a triumphant and finely-honed pastiche, crafted with a talent and passion that carries it far beyond the sum of its parts.

Lucy Allen, DJ

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