Ass Ponys is a Cincinnati-based band that has been around since 1988, purveying their unique blend of pop melodies, jam band musical chops, and often oddball lyrical excursions. Lohio is their second record with terrific Nashville producer Brad Jones (Marshall Crenshaw, Steve Forbert) at the helm, and his inventive knob twiddling combined with the band’s solid musicianship can make up for a lot of sins.
Things start strong with the jawdroppingly impressive opener “Last Night it Snowed,” which begins as a pretty, tinkly piano bit before mandolin, banjo, strings, drums, guitars, and fake horns join in. Singer Chuck Cleaver displays his occasionally brilliant, often frustratingly goofy non-sequitur lyrics on “Kung Fu Reference.” “Poor old John Carradine/Before he met his maker/He got to play a part that stood the test of time,” goes the song’s first verse. Then in the second verse: “Fresh out of paper plates/Guess I’ll do the dishes/Instead of washing off only one plate at a time.” The rest of the band (guitarist Bill Alletzhauser, bassist Randy Cheek, and drummer/keyboardist Dave Morrison) jam on behind him with a sound reminiscent of both R.E.M. and The Bottle Rockets.
Sometimes Cleaver goes a little too far with his off-kilter act, as on the Deer Hunter-themed “Donald Sutherland.” He can still come up with a poignant lyric now and then, though. “I recall the smell of summer on your skin/We were 17 and everything was pounding and it wouldn’t stop,” he sings on “Dried Up.” The shuffling drug addiction ballad “(Baby) I Love You (Baby)” is also touching, in its own way. But for every track like that one, there’s one like “Dollar A Day,” on which Cleaver sings: “Your brother got bird lice from a feather he fixed with a bobbie pin/That’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being the Indian.”
Funny stuff, to be sure, but it leaves you wondering exactly who the Ass Ponys are and where they’re going with this. Lohio, like most of the band’s work, has its moments, but their cleverer-than-thou shtick can wear out its welcome quickly.
Checkered Past Records, 1456 North Dayton, Suite 295, Chicago, IL 60622; http://www.checkeredpast.com