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Damaged Characters

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Ass Ponys
Double Door, June 21

David Lynch looks at small towns and sees their dark side. Chuck Cleaver looks at the dark side of small towns and sees their humanity.

Ass Ponys front man Cleaver, who grew up in Clarksville, Ohio (population 300), and now resides in the 2,500-person town of Bethel, is a modern master of the grotesque, a sort of musical Sherwood Anderson. His odd tales are often based on his own experience with rural mid-America, and indeed, the band's 1994 major label debut, Electric Rock Music, houses more strange characters than any small town this side of Winesburg, Ohio. On the new Under the Cedars and Stars, Cleaver's perspective has shifted from who lives in such places to what it's like to live there, conveying with increasingly minimalist lyrics a sense of claustrophobia, futility, and nameless dread.

The accompanying music, which finds its heart in Cleaver's tender, muted guitar jangle, can be as pretty as a children's song--the last verse of "Live Until I Die" closely resembles the first bars of the Sesame Street theme--but new guitarist Bill Alletzhauser's fleet, stinging leads, Randy Cheek's slingshot bass lines, and Dave Morrison's roiling drumming instill that beauty with an urgency to match Cleaver's lyrics. The instrumentation--bright and often quite beautiful--helps to humanize Cleaver's damaged characters, giving them back the dignity their circumstances strip away.

Cleaver's view of his subjects remains affectionate. He tempers their pain with sympathy, their lives' cruel absurdities with humor. Tellingly, Cleaver says "you" far more often than "I," a habit that runs counter to the self-absorption currently reigning in pop music. "All the things you thought would happen didn't, and you're pissed," he sang gently on "Gypped" during the Double Door set. Then the band burst into a cascade of groaning guitar and hurtling drums to match the disappointment and anger of the lyrics. Time and again, the music spoke for people unlikely to speak for themselves. The lulling "I Love Bob" depicted a misguided 18-year-old who carves her leg with words of devotion to a guy who splits when she needs to go to the ER three days later. During "Peanut," the music shuffled along like the microcephalic boy of the title, and Alletzhauser accompanied his wanderings with bittersweet, Hawaiian-flavored slide-guitar runs.

When the music became more turbulent to match the careening of characters in situations beyond their control, Cleaver's lyrics injected a dose of levity. As "Banlon Shirt" surged, swung, and stuttered, Cleaver's protagonist tried to stave off strangulation with ineffectual protests ("You better take care / I'll pull out a hank of your hair"). On the swirling "Shoe Money," he responded to satanic graffiti by correcting its spelling ("Satin lives in hell"), noting, "They may love the devil / But his disciples sure can't spell."

Ultimately, Cleaver's victims and villains alike retain a sort of innocence. His characters are neither monsters nor heroes. They're people in over their heads, overwhelmed by life in some way. Unlike another small-town bard, John Mellencamp, Cleaver never makes the mistake of pumping them up to star-spangled proportions they can't really support.

Cleaver recognizes what David Lynch does not: Small-town life is prosaic, not dramatic, a fact that doesn't allow one to be titillated or to gloat, two of Lynch's specialties. Scratch the surface, and you're far less likely to discover Dennis Hopper snorting amyl nitrite than the town drunk in the Ass Ponys' "Redway," who dies from eating too many pickled eggs.

During the penultimate number, "Grim," the music darkened like a gathering storm while Cleaver mourned for the lover who "gave herself to Jesus." By song's end, all sweetness was lost amid drum tumult and fragmented guitar arpeggios. Then Cleaver's guitar emerged from the void, and the band fell in behind him to the parade-march rhythms of the unreleased "Kitten." As Cleaver recounted a woman's childhood memories of her father, the music rolled along, sweet, sunny, and sad. Once again, rather than dwell in the darkness, the Ass Ponys shone a light on it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of "Ass Ponys" by Michael Wilson.

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