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PONYS (Buy CDs by this artist)
Laced With Romance (In the Red) 2004
Celebration Castle (In the Red) 2005

A quarter-century after the class of '77 sneered and roared its way into history, the sounds of that era that have endured are fiery aggro-punk, tuneful power pop and — most recently in the latest outbreak of '70s revivalism — its immediate techno/new romantic outgrowths. If the Ponys, a Chicago quartet, seems familiar, credit them for finding an altogether different corner of the Roxy WC2 to hang out in. Singer-guitarist Jared Gummere yelps with a manic ferocity that calls to mind early XTC and Television, while guitarist Ian Adams (who has since left the band) throws in a little Stranglerized Farfisa gurgle; the whole thing has the urgency and economy of Wire's Pink Flag and the Fall, but with the pulsebeat and oddly shaped melodics of the Buzzcocks. Adams throws a curve by singing the debut's "Fall Inn" — which bows in on the riff from the Crystals "Then He Kissed Me" — with the offhand artlessness of Kim Gordon. (On first listen, I thought bassist Melissa Elias was the vocalist on the song.) Despite all those touchstones, nothing about Laced With Romance is simple or consistent; the Ponys sound like they're bursting with ideas to match the energy of their kinetic playing, which never lets up or gets out of control. A bonus glop of reverb and keyboards ("Trouble Trouble") and, voila!, they're a grubby cavestomp garage band, but "I'll Make You a Star" flows out on a hammering one-chord roar that has more in common with shoegazing psychedelia and "I Love You 'Cause (You Look Like Me)" alternates a light instrumental touch (which nicely sells the irony in Adams' deadpanning) with a Seeds-like scream of fuzz guitar delirium. A tendency to repeat the enigmatic titles/lyrics ("Looking Out a Mirror") mantra-like both pulls attention to the kernel of the songs and discourages careful consideration of their details. Crudely but effectively produced by Jim Diamond, Laced With Romance is bracing and bold, a record that makes guitar rock seem like a good idea all over again.

Turns out that was only a warm-up for a band about to undergo a quick grow-up. With Steve Albini behind the board, Celebration Castle casts off the inconsequential genre-hopping of the debut to concentrate and fuel the heat at its center: insistent guitar wanging and chanted refrains delivered with subtlety and vein-popping intensity. The band's audible confidence in its music gives it the ability to negotiate sudden shifts of tempo, volume, distortion and tone without fussiness or confusion, demonstrating what Franz Ferdinand might sound like if the Scots were a little less together. "Another Wound," "Today," "We Shot the World" and "Shadow Box" are the diverse chambers at the heart of an album that surges with conviction and life.

[Ira Robbins]