Diverted by Language
Pseudowords Molly Siegel Singssnarlsqeals More Feeling Than Meaning
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Sometimes it sounds like Ponytail's Molly Siegel is trying to form words when she sings. Her inchoate primitively feral squeals and projected coos repeat themselves and start to find definition at the sounds' edges, like shaping piles of just-wet sand into shapes. It's like listening to a child learn its first word in accelerated form, only it's a twentysomething art-school graduate backed by an epic, even more clamorous version of Deerhoof.
Listening, your brain tries to trace the evolving language, find the place where those sounds turn into symbols. At first exposure to this band, you want to "get" her language, make order out of it. But in the end, your brain is going to be severely disappointed by this Baltimore foursome. There's nothing to decipher, no rubric hidden in the liner notes to the band's forthcoming Ice Cream Spiritual to translate Siegel's vocals, which are almost certainly the strangest and most refreshing in indie music since Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart taught his throat to cry.
"A friend suggested that [her singing] is like the possibility of language, like there's English, and there's these other languages that we might not know, but just try," Ponytail guitarist/infrequent vocalist Dustin Wong explains over tea in his Mount Vernon apartment. Much of the conversation among the four band members, in fact, revolves around Siegel's singing-not-singing, and perhaps justifiably so. Her voice forms a conceptual centerpiece--an ecstatic, animalistic, absolutely enthralling centerpiece--for the 3-year-old band.
"I knew I didn't want to just, like, sing," Siegel says. "I was kind of scared of that and I also didn't think it would be that great." Before Ponytail, she had never been in a band, let alone sung in any proper sense.
"When the band decided Molly would be the singer, we had a meeting about it, and I think we were listening to Peruvian music, where the vocals are emotional in a way that's not like `emotions,'" adds Wong, who had been co-helming the then-guitar duo Ecstatic Sunshine at the time. "It's more like an exerting of energy, and I think that was kind of an inspiration."
Wong recalls something else a friend remarked to him about Ponytail. "`I just want her to tell me a story,'" he recalls the friend commenting. "`I want her to tell me something. I want a narrative.' I was imagining our music with other singers, and it just won't work. Her being Molly, that's the narrative."
"For me there is a narrative to a lot of these songs," Siegel says. "In the beginning there was a lot of anger. I realized I was singing about something."
You can tell a story--make an idea--without symbols and reacting to sounds as nebulous as Siegel's vocalizations. It merely isn't a matter of decoding but it's opposite: encoding. While technically not instrumental music, your relationship to Ponytail is much the same. It attracts narratives rather than dictates them.
And, as anyone that's spent the smallest amount of time pondering lyrics in music knows, words are so often just the vehicle for a voice anyhow. "You listen to music on the radio and the songs have words but they don't necessarily mean anything," guitarist Ken Seeno says. "It's rare when they're meaningful and wonderful when they are."
"I grew up in Japan, and a lot of bands I liked when I was in high school were like Guitar Wolf and DMBQ," Wong says. "When you grow up in a country where English isn't your first language but you listen to a lot of rock 'n' roll, it's the energy of the band, and that's more about music as an idea than a song as an idea.
"When I'm singing [along] to a song it's more like meow, meow, meow . . . ," Wong continues--a sort of semantic placeholder. In Ponytail's case, though, it's a bit more the jungle-cat translation of that.
Onstage, Siegel has the look of the possessed or like someone inviting possession. The way she moves is like she is taunting a surrounding circle of half-malevolent spirit beings and coming awful close to singing in tongues to match. It's a spectacle, yes, but there's also something charming about a tiny white girl--looking, simultaneously, like she either just got out of bed or just finished painting the side of a building--putting on a show with enough energy to top her otherwise indie-rock-dude band. (No dis intended--they just look like indie-rock dudes.)
Which isn't to say that Seeno, drummer Jeremy Hyman, and Wong are to be relegated to supporting cast. Siegel would be a mad woman squealing at passers-by on the street without her bandmates' perfectly molten rock, which is just free-form enough for Siegel to slip her squeal into the mix and make it sound like it's simultaneously holding the whole song up and a particularly tasty garnish. Fans of the "old" Ecstatic Sunshine will find much to love here--Wong and Seeno's bright surf riffs would sound familiar at the bottom of the ocean. Fans of Ritalin will be just as pleased. Sure, you'll find melodic motifs in here, but you'll swear they happened over the course of several quick seizures of, at manic turns, throttling, glimmering, and, dare say, jamming rock songs.
If ever the "art"-anything descriptor worked for a band, Ponytail might be it. The band formed quite literally during a Maryland Institute College of Art parapainting class, which actually involved no painting, was taught by a poet, and the purpose of which was for students to learn about "ideas in rock music." The students had to be in bands for the semester, culminating in a final show at the Copy Cat Building. (If you just cursed your years in public university orthodoxy, we feel you.)
Ponytail--possibly because its members were "the only people in the room that knew how to play instruments," according to Seeno--was the band that kept up after school. In its primordial stages, Ponytail was a louder, brasher outfit. With a keyboardist, since departed, the drums and guitar rose to compete and, consequently, Siegel's squealsnarls were all the more vicious. "Loud drums and loud guitars, [she] was competing with all of it," Wong says.