Yet another band hailing from the indie Holy Land of Montreal, Pony Up! is an all-female group that meets the pressure to produce a worthy debut with a degree of modesty and five level heads. They demonstrate right off the bat what eventually feels like an inevitable pop songwriting sensibility. As the cliché goes, first impressions will stick, and for Pony Up! the foremost distinction is the slick, borderline-adult-contemporary production that comfortably plops acoustic guitars and pianos into every track. But these instruments hardly wander, though they twinkle: if anything, the clever manipulation of keyboard timbre and use of guitar pedals (for short, repeated hooks) more strongly associates them with the likes of indie-pop acts like the Magnetic Fields or early New Pornographers. It's an irrevocably cute and popular technique for cementing a song's identity without bizarre shenanigans or a bias in the eternal struggle of production versus songwriting.
Still, I'd be lying if I pretended this what the most gripping aspect of the album. In fact, the cake has to go to the band's rhythm section. Bassist Lisa Smith and drummer Lindsay Willis essentially carve a bowl to hold the nectar of the indie-pop hooks. Their muscular, multidimensional sound is not particularly unique, but for this album it substantiates even the schmaltzier moments and prevents the band from the all-too-common fate of getting lost in its own preciousness. The momentum is particularly valuable when repeated listens reveal the identifying hooks are more theoretical than definite; more often than not, the time-tried method is tweaked and compensated in the name of their decidedly inoffensive and utterly smooth melodies. So, for example, the use of accordion on "Only Feelgood" ends up sounding so utterly appropriate in its background role that one simply can't anticipate a thrill on the level of the Arcade Fire's "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)." It's times like these that it's nice to have drums and bass in the mix to act as a sort of primal safety net.
This dichotomy is strangely apparent in the vocals as well, which are shared by all five women. There's obvious expected variation in tone and inflection betwixt them, but not obviously enough that many listeners could really distinguish them. Besides, they're united by the appeal of their conviction, though what makes it so magnetic is tough to describe. Certainly it's a far cry from the adorable innocence inherent in Joanna Newsom's voice, yet it's certainly not as unyieldingly harsh as Alanis Morissette's. Nor do weepiness and fragility consume the vocal roles in the spirit of countless others. The weave is a satisfying balance that is resolute without being isolating; like the instruments, the thin, emotional and pretty are the subject but the strength of the backbone prevents it all from collapsing into mush. It's the prevailing attitude that elevates the merely "pretty good" vocal tunes and lyrics ("I miss not knowing you so well") to a more poignant level.
It'd be misleading to say the album wanes in its latter half, because they apply the formula to relative success with very song. In fact, it makes for an album with a flow as smooth and easy as any single track within it. Some might describe it as "if it ain't broke don't fix it" and some would describe it as monotony. As usual, neither connotation accurately touches on the lingering bittersweet taste in the last few (inexorably forgettable) tracks. But at the end of the day, despite the steady decline, the album holds together as an honest collection of songs by a group that is musically adept enough to create the subtle complexity their thoughts and emotions deserve. It will be a tough act to follow, but as far as the debut's concerned the band's a solid addition to the community.