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Pontiak - Sun on Sun

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Artist: Pontiak

Album: Sun on Sun

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Sep. 16, 2008

Kale, Pontiak’s split with Arbouretum last summer was most people’s first taste of this band’s country tinged, trance-rock, but it was also, chronologically, its latest work. Pontiak’s second album Sun on Sun is getting wide release roughly two months later, and if the debut Valley of Cats reappears after that, the whole backwards movie will be complete. For now, listeners are in the unusual position of getting to know Pontiak the way they get to know most of their friends: starting with the present and working backwards to understand where they came from.

It does turn the idea of context on its head, though. Normally, you study the album you’ve just received (the "new" one) in light of all the others you’ve heard. Where did it come from? What were they working on before, and how did it turn into what you’ve got here? This time, the process is reversed. You’re looking for seeds that might have sprouted into what you know...and that’s harder. Acorns are so much smaller than oak trees. Still if the split with Arbouretum was bounded by polar opposites - the desert rock dirge of "Dome Under the Sky,” the light and playful John Cale cover ("Believe Me Mr. Wilson") - you can find inklings of that wide focus in Sun on Sun.

This second album was recorded by the three Carney brothers - guitarist and lead singer Van, bass and organ player Jennings and drummer Lain - somewhere in the wilds north of Charlottesville, Va. It was made, like most homemade albums, on a limited budget within an abbreviated space of time (four days). The brothers were shooting for something like a live performance, both because they liked the sound and because they didn’t have time for alternate takes and overdubs. So, it’s a rough piece of work, nothing calculated or especially complicated about it. There are songs that meditate on a single minor chord for upwards of six minutes. There is even one track comprised of nothing but cymbal rolls ("Swell"); it lasts for almost three minutes, even so.

And yet within this context, you can hear intimations of both the bludgeoning power and the lighter more lyrical side that Pontiak brought to Kale. The huge grinding bass riff on "Shell Skull" leads inexorably to a big three-man-in-unison chorus, all its oversized parts melding into one monolithic song. "White Hands" starts out like it’s going to be the only rapid-paced headbanger in the bunch, its drum and guitar rolling, pounding and speeding, until they pull to a stop. It’s like they’ve spotted a state trooper round the bend and back off to 65, just in time for the stately, slow-march vocals "White Mice" is more of the same, stopped-time vibe, its ponderous riff a guitar (or maybe a bass) tolling like a bell, one note over and over.

About midway through, brother Jennings switches from bass to organ, and the sound shifts dramatically towards the lyrical. The title track comes right at the half point, beginning in viscous, time-bending slides that are very similar, though pitched quite a bit lower, than the guitar work on "The Endless Plain of Fortune." The guitar here sounds more like Friends of Dean Martinez’ desert psych than Kyuss or Dead Meadow, and it’s embedded in a church-like organ tone, all tremolo’d and shivering. "Tell Me About" is even lighter-sounding, more insouciant, the drums cut back to sticks on cymbals, the guitar cavorting in syncopations around the beat. Yet it is on this track, and the one that follows "The Brush Burned Fast" that the Doors comparisons start to make sense. Lain’s voice is hollowed out and ominous like the Lizard King amid vast, empty spaces. He doesn’t seem to be doing this anymore by Kale - and that, at least, is evidence of growth and maturity.

To some extent Sun on Sun answers the question, "Where did Pontiak come from?" (A: Sabbath, the Doors, Neil Young, the woods). But really, the much more interesting issue right now is where are they going? For that, we’ll all have to go to the live shows, or wait for new material. But for a band this interesting, even in its early stages, even in a record that has already been superceded, it’s well worth inquiring.

By Jennifer Kelly

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