Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Some Stupid With a Flare Gun
Checkered Past
The Ass Ponys should have disappeared by now. The Ohio four-piece lucked into A&M backing for their third and best album, 1994's Electric Rock Music, produced real cheap by a buddy from the Afghan Whigs. But the label sat on 1996's The Known Universe until it suffocated, which with alternative becoming a bad word would have happened eventually anyway. And though they're songful and down-to-earth enough for a roots-rock niche, Chuck Cleaver of the hometown-gothic lyrics and homely-gremlin falsetto is pushing 40. Bye bye bye. Only here comes the absurdly entitled Some Stupid With a Flare Gun, produced real cheap by a buddy from Nashville and out on an alt-country indie, and suddenly Electric Rock Music is no longer their best album. The tunes are stronger, the beat too, and young guitarist Bill Alletzhauser is all grown up. In memory of some fellow forgotten alt-rockers, there's even a rousing instrumental fanfare-as-interlude called "Love Tractor." Remember them?

But Ass Ponys fans are in it for the songs--and the singer, which is a big reason there aren't many Ass Ponys fans. Neil Young is adduced in defense of Cleaver's high Midwestern whine, but Young sings pretty. Cleaver is love-him-or-leave-him expressive, locked into the vivid local colors of his lyrics--pained, tender, sardonic, fallible. Here he leads with two tales of lost women--one hanging in the barn, the other in love with a dead astronaut she never met--as acute and forlorn as anything in his book, and goes on to a dirt farmer's wife and a fetus's ghost and a guy who's very proud of his third nipple.

As with so many potential disappearing acts, it's clearly the words that keep Cleaver at it. He's literary, but with a difference, because he doesn't want to write short stories about these suffering fools. He prefers to grant them a reality that testifies physically to the weird spunk and rough shapeliness of lives that aren't altogether imprisoned by the illusions they're prey to. He wants to make them into rock and roll. Nothing else will do.

Spin, June, 2000