Lohio is the most assured album in the Ass Ponys’ long career, and, despite their low profile, suggests that they are one of the finest working bands of their day. Combining an eclectic rock sensibility akin to early Wilco with the backwoods fatalism of the Handsome Family (“Donald Sutherland” could easily be a Handsomes cover), the Ass Ponys use the full resources of the studio this time to showcase each bandmember at the top of his game.
From the opening track, where a cheery winterscape is transformed by Dave Morrison’s Keith Moon-like flourishes into a thunderous blizzard, the rhythm section of Morrison and Randy Cheek catches perfectly the album’s sense of controlled desperation. Bill Alletzhauser’s brilliant guitar work is only enhanced by the obvious care taken in production this time; his carefully crafted solos open up “Fire In The Hole”, “Butterfly”, and the lovely John Carridine tribute “Kung Fu Reference” to their full potential.
Singer Chuck Cleaver has guided the shambling juggernaut that is the Ass Ponys for thirteen years. For all the twisted set pieces and the dark, dark humor of his work, there’s also a genuine tenderness and wonder — witness here the love-for-hire heartbreak of “Dollar A Day”, or the second-line high spirits of “Black Dot”.
Still, it’s the twisted stuff that hits hardest — specifically, the critical-list-as-love-nest spookiness of “(Baby) I Love You (Baby)”, or “Only”, where the hot riff carries the reasonable, if suspect, request: “Please don’t kick my busted heart too far.” And just what are we to make of the see-you-in-September loser’s question in “Calendar Days”: “Do I still exist in the bottomless pit of your heart?”
Cleaver’s vocals maintain that delicate balance between the hopeful and the crazed, until the last cut. On “Nothing Starts Today”, resignation seems to settle in — and with what’s gone before, who can be surprised. But even here, there’s that admission: “I keep pushing play…”
And in the end that’s what Lohio gives us: abundant reasons to keep pushing play.