Firstly, let me begin this review by stating that I have a deep respect for Jeff Cloud. His independent music label, Velvet Blue Music, has demonstrated incredible integrity, vision, and creativity since the label’s inception in 1996. Cloud has shown an uncanny ear in selecting high quality music to promote on his label, and as a businessman, he is relentless, yet personable and accessible at the same time. His label’s releases are a testimony to the hard work of this man.
However, there is a different side to Jeff Cloud….Jeff Cloud the musician. Cloud is involved in the rock group The Party People, as well as playing bass for indie stalwarts Starflyer 59. In these groups, Cloud‘s presence has merely been one of support, and his efforts are overshadowed in both groups by other band members. So, what does a creative and talented man like Jeff Cloud do to obtain an outlet for his own creative exercises? Pony Express.
Now, you will begin to understand why I prefaced this review with all of the above flattery. You see, in the, oh, 7 years or so since the founding of Pony Express, I can honestly say I’ve been largely unimpressed. The arrangements on previous Pony Express projects seemed to me to be unimaginative, too muddled, or just flat out boring. I found Cloud‘s voice to be one that sounded lazy, uninspired, and I just couldn’t get into the tones that came from the guy’s mouth. It wasn’t so much the ethos of the band that unimpressed me. I usually love slow, lo-fi, melancholy songs. It was just that Pony Express didn’t do it for me. The only saving grace (besides the usually interesting lyrics) that I noticed in Pony Express was that Cloud seemed to be able to pen perfect melodies. Melodies that linger in your head all day…melodies that sound as if you’ve heard them before…melodies that left this listener wondering what in the world would happen if Cloud could harness that songwriting ability and put it towards music that was better produced and performed?
Well, what do you know, he finally did it! On what for me is so far the surprise of the year, Pony Express releases Becoming What You Hate, an 11 song collection of catchy rock/pop/slowcore songs that inspire and impact the listener. This cd hits home in ways that Pony express could only dream of in the past. Produced by Frank Lenz (Wayne Everett, Richard Swift, Duraluxe, Lassie Foundation, etc), Becoming What You Hate somehow combines good production with lo-fi attitude, all the while containing catchy melodies that will, yes, linger in your mind all day long. After the dark, morose tone of Becoming What You Hate dissipates, crisp drums signal the beginning of “Debbie’s Operating System”, a great rock-pop song. This song has radio airplay all over it, with its infectious groove, tasteful keyboard arrangements, layers of electric guitars, and strong melodies. Cloud‘s voice is wisely mixed down and coated in a light blanket of reverb, making his voice more palatable. However, on the songs with sparser arrangements, “Teenagers and Fire” and “Sister Says”, for instance, Cloud shows a remarkable improvement and wider range in his vocal styling. The songs that work the best on “Becoming What You Hate” are the ones where Cloud‘s strong melodies meet Lenz‘s interesting production ideas, such as “Teenagers and Fire”, where ethereal keys support Cloud‘s classically slow melody, and “Long Island”, where Cloud‘s song flows perfectly with the 60’s rock guitars and lumbering drums. This cd has many other high points, such as the spastic “GPA” that starts softly enough, only to erupt into a wall of trashy distorted guitars and frantic drumming. Another high point would be the radio friendly “Walking Tall”, with its smoothly intertwining guitar and keyboard parts supporting the ridiculously catchy melody.
Supported by the likes of Lenz, Jason Martin (Starflyer 59), Josh Dooley (Map), and Richard Swift, Cloud fulfills the untapped potential of his songwriting ability. What a great surprise Becoming What You Hate is! The melodies are already lingering in my mind. For fans of: Starflyer 59, Lenola, lovers of lo-fi indie pop.