Shortly after Seattle first happened, the Oregon city three hours to the south — where the Wipers, Poison Idea and Dead Moon had been knocking about in honorable obscurity for years — began to produce a fresh crop of its own bands. Portland’s class of ’92 included Sprinkler, Heatmiser (with Elliott Smith), Hazel and Pond. The fledgling Pond’s Charlie Campbell (guitars/vocals) and Chris Brady (bass/vocals) were really from Juneau — they ended up in Portland because Alaska’s liquor laws kept the underage Campbell from playing in bars. A year after arriving, they plucked drummer Dave Triebwasser from the ashes of Thrillhammer and began to polish their pop act. Spotted opening for (and recommended by) Sprinkler, they were signed to Sub Pop after a ’92 7-inch.
Pond was rather more of a pop band than Seattle’s grunge label was then known for. Pond is an unusually polished debut which begins with the sprightly drone of “Young Splendor” and moves easily along to songs like “Agatha” (about being a scared child) and “Foamy,” about a messianic hooker. In part, the record owes its sound to the production by Jonathan Auer of the Posies; still, the songs revel in a post-punk pop glory, and carry a guarded exuberance.
The Practice of Joy Before Death is a less certain undertaking. Largely repudiating pop, the trio promote Adam Kaspar from engineer to producer and head toward the emo-core of bands like Polvo and Sunny Day Real Estate. The songs aren’t so much about things as they are about a stumbling expression of feelings. Which unfortunately means they’re less about being songs.
Pond then left the cozy environs of Sub Pop for a major-label imprint. Although the move probably seemed logical to the trio at the time, producing its masterpiece did nothing in the commercial stakes by which such firms judge their signings, and it proved the end of Pond’s road. Rock Collection is the rare record that stands the test of passing genres. The album both preceded emo and did it better than most of the bands that currently flail about in the tricky territory of rocking guitars and overtly twee broken hearts. “Scoliosis,” “Spokes” and two (count ’em, two) songs about spacemen (“You’re Not an Astronaut” and “My Dog Is an Astronaut, Though”) are full of loud, tautly controlled melodies that lyrically escape the pat boy-loves-girl-he-can’t-quite-have theme that can make emo unbearable to those over the ago of 17. It is this lyrical darkness that ultimately makes Rock Collection both more adult and less accessible. In their songs, Brady and Campbell mine a set of fears raw enough to send Dashboard Confessional crying home. In this particular Pond, one could either be jumping around striking classic air guitar poses or contemplating failed relationships in the dark depths.
When a good band ends for such frustrating reasons as lack of attention, music business idiocy, disappointing sales, it’s heartening to find what rises from its ashes continuing to prove the former’s worth and creativity. Goldcard, a solo album by Charlie Campbell (with help from his former bandmates in Pond), is based on a guitar trick (he calls it a “gimmick”) he developed toward the end of Pond. It can sound like a string section played by arthritic quilters or a heated argument between drunken songbirds. While Campbell spends a good amount of time in the liner notes extolling the virtues of the “gimmick” (which, evidently, he has since forgotten how to do) the album’s real strength is in the fragile pop songs that Campbell often seems barely able to hold together. Perhaps it’s the nature of the “gimmick” and its spooky reverberations, but the songs on which it’s heavily employed (“We Only Doubt Which Theory We Will Be Proving First,” “Destroy and Recreate,” “Rabbit,” “If I Could Help It”) end up laced with a sinister tension that, coupled with Campbell’s hushed falsetto, suggest a less-than-firm grip on reality. It’s not often that a songwriter can elevate the hook and melody of a well-honed pop song into something both weird (in a good way) and beautiful. Goldcard‘s main flaw is Campbell’s tendency to go overboard: the 16 songs are four or five too many, and Campbell’s drum machines and Vietnamese disco are not his best ideas here.
If Pond was the brainchild of two songwriters with different agendas who, when forced to collaborate, forged the sound that made Pond’s records special, then (like the aftermath of Uncle Tupelo) it has become apparent that Brady and Campbell mined very different territory. Goldcard is the more abstract, experimental side of Pond; Audio Learning Center is its straight-up indie-rock counterpoint.
After Pond, Brady began playing with Steven Birch of Sprinkler, another band from the ’90s Seattle rock scene; they became Audio Learning Center. Producer Adam Kasper (Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Cat Power) oversaw their first record, Friendship Often Fades, in which Brady continues the introspection that characterized much of his writing for Pond. But unlike Pond, the album resembles Dinosaur Jr and the Pixies.
Cope Park, recorded in the band’s home studio to recreate its live sound, is a more mature, confident affair. Brady still sings with heartbreaking intensity, but the music seems to have caught up with his dark-hued subject matter. Cope Park contains all the melodic indie rock staples of the debut (hook-heavy songs, loud guitars, soft-to-loud dynamics), this record stands out from the crowd instead of fading into it. “California,” “You Get That From Your Mother” and the brilliant “Stereo” sound as if Brady has been listening to his old Pond records (or spending time with Campbell). The record is louder, full of odd changes and progressions, strummed bass lines and the kind of impassioned playing missing the first time.