Seeking to remedy rock’s sickly lack of humor, Cincinnati’s Ass Ponys prescribe some wildly oddball tales of underappreciated aspects of America. The foursome coalesced in 1989, when singer/guitarist Chuck Cleaver (a veteran of the Lunchbuddies and Gomez) and ex-Libertines bassist Randy Cheek threw in their lot together. Mr. Superlove (produced by Afghan Whigs bassist and Cincy homeboy John Curley) touches on such uniquely American topics as roadkill (“Hey Swifty”), twisting them in a way that will make liberal types cringe. (Instead of offering sympathy, Cleaver’s protagonist repeatedly runs over the animal.) The frontman’s slightly nasal, oddly high-pitched vocal tricks most definitely aren’t for everyone, but his hell-bent strains give the Ass Ponys an instantly likable quality.
Distribution problems left Mr. Superlove by the wayside, but Grim proved the band unwilling to abandon its twisted route: if anything, the Ponys are more determined in their folk-rock vision. Where the previous release used John Erhardt’s slide and pedal steel to infuse a rootsy sound, Grim sees him sprinkling lighter flourishes into the mix. Maybe it’s the occasionally muffled production that takes the fun down a peg, but Grim takes the “more serious” mission too seriously.
Curley takes the production reins again for Electric Rock Music; his return is good for the Ass Ponys. On the best of its albums, the band handles pop melodies, acoustic meanderings and country influences with equal aplomb: call the resultant hybrid Pavement-meets-Hank Williams (with less heartbreak). The band’s humor is back in full effect, tackling such sacred topics as familial knickknacks (“Earth to Grandma”), the socially challenged (“Peanut ’93”) and unfulfilling relationships (“Otter Slide”). The Ass Ponys aren’t afraid to let you look into the mind of a kook; hell, they’ll even split the skull wide open for your convenience.
By The Known Universe, however, it’s not just the cosmology that’s starting to seem familiar, it’s the group’s hackneyed idea of wit. Sounding like slapdash country kin of the Barenaked Ladies, the Ass Ponys retread familiar soil, relying on exhausted film jokes (“God Tells Me To”) and mild outrage (“Cancer Show”), all the while belaboring clichés like “I could rule the world if…” (a self-mocking line Tin Huey used to better effect fifteen years earlier) and real-life oddities like the oft-derided “Satin lives in hell” graffiti. While the semi-acoustic music is good-naturedly upbeat (breaking the mold, “And She Drowned” is impressive in its chunky pop-punk spunk), Cleaver’s wavery voice remains a possible deal-breaker.