Thursday, September 3, 2009

Harmony Handgrenade - Oxygen Ponies (No Ripcord Review)

Harmony Handgrenade

Oxygen Ponies
Hidden Target Records.

No Ripcord Rating: 7/10
SCQ Rating: 73%

When life gives you lemons… make them hand grenades!” is the anonymous claim headlining the Oxygen Ponies’ website, and despite the twenty-one members who contribute to the band, the source of such a statement could only be Paul Megna. The centerpiece of an orbiting – and overwhelming – mythology, Megna’s biography is vividly crafted to include tales of childhood trauma, being shot in the neck by a sniper, saving his girlfriend during a suicide-attempt, and bailing on his wedding. To boot, the ringleader of Oxygen Ponies is dutifully compared to all-stars of 20th century misery, citing Megna’s place next to Elliott Smith, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Drake. If such a biography fails to proclaim Megna as the king of understatement, it’s no surprise that Harmony Handgrenade goes one further; a boisterous, dramatic and occasionally jarring collection that, as suggested, forms impressive sonic-weapons out of sour memories.

For all the stories and theories about this songwriter’s enigmatic persona, it’s Megna’s voice, drowsy yet ferocious, that sells his oft-unfathomable history. Such sorrow is palpable despite the jaunty tempo of ‘Tryna Get to Heaven’, and equally in-limbo between hopeless and hopeful on the stirring ‘Love Yr Way’, which moves from lilting acoustics to a full-band crescendo of choir and strings. As often as compositions retaliate suddenly, Harmony Handgrenade crests on rock-steady American folk-rock, treating these ten tracks like heavy heaves or quiet sighs. ‘Fevered Cyclone’ is a white-flag call to a lover, replete with ambling percussion, yet one track later, on the bar-band riffs of ‘The War is Over’, Megna appears to have moved on to seduce a new complication. One can’t help but suggest that these conflicts and lemons in his life lay at the roots of his muse, as Oxygen Ponies’ best tracks are commonly his moodiest. ‘Villains’ delves into minor-key guitar patterns and twinkling piano that should creep and comfort one’s overcast day, and while it plateaus out much like its “long drive home” lyrical refrain, the arrangement sheds sunlight and, eventually, sheer volume on the road ahead. Moments this heartrending forcefully outweigh the few casual rockers (‘Smile’) and overblown arrangements (‘Grab Yr Gun’) present, coming to identify Harmony Handgrenade as the powerful sophomore album of, yes, a potential songwriting genius.

Perhaps the most relevant aspect of Paul Megna’s curious biography is that he starred in an off-Broadway play as Kurt Cobain, during which Jeff Buckley trained him on a Fender and Megna began writing his own material. It’s a true account that questions how Oxygen Ponies have remained an undiscovered act these past years. While I haven’t any leads as to why that is, I can tell you an autobiographical story of my own. In the twilight hours of a misty July night, I wearily took to the streets and haphazardly decided to indulge my first listen of Harmony Handgrenade. Miles from sleep in a hometown where taxis are mirages, I should’ve entrusted my tired ears to something familiar, yet not only did my first impression of Oxygen Ponies insist on a second listen, I eventually arrived home having spun the record three times. If anything will jolt this band out of obscurity, it won’t be stories of sniper-wounds or comparisons to Nick Drake. It’ll be Harmony Handgrenade… the one statement that matters.

(This review was originally published on No Ripcord...)

No comments: