Like most good things, I came across Pontiak by accident. My friend and later college roommate had seen the Baltimore/NoVA blues-rock trio (comprised of brothers Jennings, Van, and Lain Carney) perform in 2005, and he had returned from the show with a fistful of Pontiak’s White Buffalo EPs. He then passed on a copy to yours truly, and I soon found myself grooving to the languidly melodic twang and drone of tunes like “Aztec Blood,” “Night Daughter,” and “Ophelia.”
True to form, one happy accident led to another. Specifically: the stealthy blip on my musical radar that was Pontiak’s 2006 premier full-length, Valley of Cats, which contained such slick licks as “Crows on the Move” and “How Tall are You?.” Check it.
Past history aside, I claim no certain level of expertise on either Pontiak or the musical history of the brothers Carney. Still, I have been fortunate enough to witness, bit by bit, their sonic evolution—meaning that I’ve been able to slowly absorb and appreciate their progression from soft-spoken, acoustic blues ballads to gruff-and-tumble southern rock and multi-track themes with increasingly complex arrangements.
Really, it’s amazing to think that it’s only been little more than two years. Even more amazing is the fact that Pontiak’s third release, Sun on Sun, is set to drop in August—only one year after their premier full-length, Valley of Cats. Talk about your quick turn-around, eh?
From the start, Sun on Sun sets itself apart from earlier Pontiak releases. Whereas songs like “Aztec Blood” and “Crows on the Move” wrapped themselves in acoustic twang and pop-rock zest, Sun on Sun intro track “Shell Skull” launches forward with a heavy guitar riff and drum combination of classically hard-rockin’ proportions, only to step back into a moody blues rhythm with snare, hi-hat, and six-string growl to keep things moving at a fair clip. Lead vocals from Van are deep and ominous, with space-y back-up yawps from Jennings for the chorus—“How far are we gonna go / standing outside in the cold?” Up the percussion from Lain, cue the wailing guitar solo from Van, and get ready to rock out.
In addition to indulging a harder rock aesthetic and longer, more meandering songs, Pontiak have also begun making forays into the realm of noisenik ambience—a staple of the Mobtown avant-rock scene these days, and a surprising addition to the trio’s repertoire. As indicated by the parenthetical “and” preceding its name on the CD, “Swell” builds off of the end of “Shell Skull”: a short bridge of guitar feedback spans the gap between the two songs and quickly trails off into three minutes of echoing crash effects and microphone buzz. A change of pace, sure, but it works exceedingly well and adds even more character to Sun on Sun when the album is heard as a whole.
Next up, “White Hands” wastes no time in invoking the rock riffage and bluesy intonations of such legends as Jimmy Page and Jim Morrison. Vocally, Van and Jennings’s harmonies in “White Hands” come across as a chanted run-on sentence, shambling forward overtop reverberating guitar fuzz and staid percussion that centers on Lain’s brass and toms. Following a hearty rock breakdown and a song-ending refrain, follow-up track “White Mice” (another “and” track) eases along for a droning three-minute instrumental intro that eventually uses a hi-hat break to quick-shift into a head-bobbing blues beat.
Running just over nine minutes long, Sun on Sun’s title track layers steady percussion, a rumbling bass line, and a low-lying Hammond-esque drone ‘neath sleepy, heavily-augmented guitar feedback. The song eventually cleans itself up with some clear-cut finger-picking just in time for Van’s casual croons. Like most of Sun on Sun (and earlier Pontiak offerings, for that matter), Van’s vocals are arresting in their poetic presentation and frustrating in their mumbled near-indecipherability—an observation on what they are, not a complaint for what they are not. With that in mind, the following is a best-guess transposition, since Sun on Sun is sadly sans lyric sheet:
“So open the windows / above the desk, / draw back the hands that hang / like wooden sails / trembling / in the lightest breeze. / It’s not fair that the weather / is indifferent to these / wishes and wants / that grow from our stomachs, / from our hands and out on to / dresses and truces. So climb up that ladder / and put on your hat; / with a rum in our hand, / we’ll introduce / ourselves to the sun.”
Coming into the home stretch, “Tell Me About” juxtaposes hearty buzzsaw skronk from Van’s six-string with carney-esque keys from Jennings and splashes of brass from Lain—a heavy blues-rock sound that is quite the contrast to the soft acoustic twang of album-ending track (and White Buffalo stylistic throwback), “The Brush Burned Fast.”
At six tracks and little over half an hour in length, Sun on Sun feels a bit short after the first listen. Nevertheless, the musical abilities of the brothers Carney are sure to draw you back for repeat performances, at which point the band’s strengths—among them, well-worded narratives and stellar songwriting of the blues-rock variety—become that much more apparent.
Audio Reviews (July 15th, 2007)
Tags: audio, review, pontiak, sun on sun, fireproof records