The short version: Orville Peck is on to something good with ‘Pony,’ but the songs themselves don’t quite ever reach a level of greatness.
- Favorite tracks: “Winds Change,” “Dead Of Night,” “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)”
- Least favorite track: “Old River”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: It’s strange being a country music fan in 2019.
If you haven’t noticed, country music, or at least the facade of country music, is quite popular this year, and the success isn’t even really owed to people who call themselves country artists. In a way, the genre is caught in a weird time period not unlike that of the Urban Cowboy era when cowboy accessories and country music culture were on the rise.
But again, that’s a note on the popularity of the culture, not the music (it’s “yeehaw culture,” people, not “country music culture”). It’s almost as if Alan Jackson’s “Gone Country” is coming to life once again. Granted, I’ve come to find that most of it is all in good fun, so there’s no need to really feel “threatened” by any of it, but one does have to question the legitimacy of its staying power, even in terms of how long it’ll last this week, month, or, at best, year.
And this brings us to Orville Peck, the masked cowboy/country music singer based in Toronto who, when asked just who he is, will only reply that he’s a country singer. But this isn’t some Ghost/Tobias Forge situation – the man behind the curtain is Daniel Pitout, a drummer in the indie rock/punk band Nü Sensae. While I would just love to dive right into the music of Peck’s debut album, Pony, obviously there’s some elements to address first and foremost, and it would feel improper not to do so.
First of all, there’s the elephant in the room of being a masked cowboy in a genre that values openness and authenticity. On one hand, Peck has acknowledged that the entire gimmick is to feed the theatricality of his work, but on the other hand, it’s also there so that people don’t overanalyze his story and, in turn, let the music speak for itself (kind of ironic, huh?). Secondly, is any of this real? Thus far, the conversation surrounding Peck is that he’s some big, bad “disrupter” bent on tearing down doors in country music, causing some people to (fairly) question the ordeal. Yet going back through interviews of Peck (and Pony), that’s mostly what the media is saying. Peck, on the other hand, is quick to acknowledge that his sound is a love letter to his influences, including Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, Townes Van Zandt and more, and not something wholly original. And more importantly, despite how the media, for some reason, loves painting country music as stuffy or close-minded in 2019, Peck is also quick to acknowledge that there’s a lot to country music that people don’t normally see without flipping off their radio dials and embarking on their own musical discovery journeys.
And this is all to chase the dog’s tail and point back to the million dollar question – is this authentic? I believe we’ll all need to draw our own personal conclusions on that, but as for me, while I wouldn’t say Pony is quite a great album, I’m on board with Peck. And until I find reason to doubt him otherwise, I find that he’s bringing something cool to the table in country music. Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention that Pony mainly coasts on those aforementioned elements of what’s made country culture so appealing this year – tales of cowboys in the Wild West, and even a moment where he utters “yeehaw” in the middle of a song for the heck of it. So no, it’s not exactly original, but in terms of raw talent, there’s at least potential here.
Peck’s greatest asset is himself. Vocally, most people have pointed to Roy Orbison for the obvious comparison, but the real dead ringer is Marty Robbins, particularly in the cadences and inflections. Like Robbins, Peck has an incredibly commanding technical range that he uses to his full advantage, particularly on the hook of “Dead Of Night,” the interweaving vocal layering on “Old River” and in smaller fragments on “Winds Change” and “Queen Of The Rodeo.” Though there’s also tracks which trap him strictly in his lower range to ineffective results like “Turn To Hate,” “Kansas (Remember Me Now),” and “Big Sky,” though this is also a note on a lack of dynamic range, which comes with time anyway. Peck’s at his best when he can show off his vocal chops in interesting fashions, and thankfully there’s moments on Pony where that happens.
But going back to the Robbins comparison, however, it’s fitting in more ways than one. Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs this is not, but there is a cool spin Peck is putting on his brand of retro-leaning western music, particularly with the surf tones. Pony is an album that opts for atmosphere and space to tell its stories, meaning that there’s a lot of heavy reverb and low-simmering bass to achieve those dynamics. Like with the vocals, it can lead to a mixed bag at points, but on moments like “Winds Change” which blends those tones with rich pedal steel to highlight its loneliness, there’s a smoothness to the feel of this project that’s easy to enjoy.
Sadly, Pony is mostly reliant on the same dynamics throughout, though there are surprise moments throughout like “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)” with its rockabilly beat and whistle to signal that feel of the cowboy riding away. There’s also “Queen Of The Rodeo” where Peck’s range grows higher in the chorus while those notes simmer lower, creating another interesting dynamic.
But again, Pony can also a bit one-dimensional at points. After awhile the magic formula of heavy reverb-drenched guitars can start to grow stale and catch this album in a stagnant mood, particularly on “Big Sky” and “Hope To Die.” “Stuffy” isn’t quite the right word for it at points, but there is something to that sentiment with those tracks and “Kansas (Remember Me Now)” where the heavy, canned production does the song no favors, especially to Peck, vocally. And then there’s “Big River,” which starts off in an incredibly interesting manner with its structure that’s almost a capella, but does add some low simmering textures to hint at some upcoming tension and then … abruptly ends before it becomes interesting.
Of course, that’s also a comment toward the lyricism, where my biggest frustrations with Pony stem. There’s nothing inherently bad about the lyrical content here, but most of the songs coast on disconnected metaphors to get their points across instead of fleshing out stories. Hell, most of these songs have more interesting backstories than enough interesting elements as pure songs. “Kansas (Remember Me Now),” for example, is told from the perspective of Perry Smith in the wake of the actual Clutter family murders committed by Smith and Dick Hicock in Halcomb, Kansas in 1959, yet it hardly matters to the actual song, which barely scratches the surface of character development or grips the listener in any way with that story.
The closest this album comes to telling a “story” is in the first track, “Dead Of Night” which tells of two outlaw cowboy lovers who grow apart as their escapades hasten and show how one takes pleasure in what they do while the other feels guilt. It’s an interesting dynamic that’s told well, but the rest of Pony mostly deals with Peck’s own personal perspective on love and past relationships. Again, in terms of highlights, “Winds Change” is one moment here where that theatricality pays off, especially when that end crescendo kicks in to symbolize Peck’s literal riding away from turbulent relationships for the betterment of himself.
I’m also going to go back to “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call),” which, yes, does work for the same reasons as “Winds Change,” but it also showcases Peck’s fun personality in a better way than most tracks here. There’s also an interesting open-ended that could be had with “Queen Of The Rodeo,” as considering the narrative is mostly focused on Peck himself, it’s hard not to see this track as a conversation with himself as he figures out how to make it as an artist in the industry.
But there’s also times where those disconnected metaphors can lead to tracks that don’t feel fleshed out well or could have used an extra verse to tie everything together better. “Buffalo Run,” much like “Old River,” experiments with a tempo that only gets faster as the song moves along to highlight the feel of a herd of buffalo coming, but there’s not much to it other than that, and if there’s one moment where Pony *can* feel like a hokey gimmick, it’s here. Even “Big Sky” is another track that’s got an interesting backstory to it, detailing three particularly abusive relationships Peck was engaged in, but for some reason takes a more broad approach to the framing within the actual song that doesn’t resonate nearly as effectively.
And once again, this all circles back to the original discussion of Pony and its place in country music. Even as someone who’s guarded country music tradition more so lately than most years (in my own stupid way, admittedly), I’m on board with Peck and Pony, though it does coast more on style than actual substance. In terms of natural, raw talent, Peck is an incredibly diverse vocalist who draws the listener in naturally, and sonically, this album shoots for high standards. But it also is a one-trick pony in other ways (pun intended), and I wish there was more teeth to the lyrical substance. And going forward, for as fun as the image is ultimately is, eventually the music will have to triumph over that. But Pony is an interesting listen regardless where, despite its flaws, the music still at least supersedes any fear of this just being a gimmick, so unless Peck takes the same route of Daniel Romano by telling us his country career is all a joke … what the hell, I’m on board.