Despite the odd name, Tired Pony boasts a cast of alt-country and rock veterans and a thoroughly authentic feel.
Tired Pony: The Place We Ran From
Indie bands have been enthusiastically branding themselves after animals for some years now. Fleet Foxes, Foals, Frightened Rabbit and Grizzly Bear are all evidence of this, as are more than a dozen bands with "wolf" in their names - but the humble pony hasn't got much of a look in. As well as conjuring-up images of aspirational eight-year-old girls, the word's appropriation for cockney rhyming slang (a London patois) to signify shoddiness, offers a possible reason why.
This group's decision to add the word "tired" - which is often used to mean hackneyed or bland - to the already questionable "pony" is a perplexing one. Perhaps the name was devised with the intention of scaring away potential listeners? But thankfully, the alt-country supergroup Tired Pony's debut is not as bad as all that. The project was masterminded by the Northern Irish singer and frontman of arena-hopping rockers Snow Patrol, Gary Lightbody, who was "inspired by Wilco, Calexico, Lambchop, Palace, Smog ... bands that look at the darkness in America". The line-up also boasts Peter Buck of REM on mandolin, Belle & Sebastian's drummer Richard Colburn and a host of others - as well as superproducer Jacknife Lee. Despite what their name might suggest, Tired Pony's music is not shoddy or hackneyed, although it can be a little bland.
The record starts slowly with Northwestern Skies, a ghostly, banjo-driven folk ballad. With the presence of Buck and REM's long-term collaborator Scott McCaughty, this album bears the distinctive fingerprint of the US giants; indeed, the opening track sees Lightbody sounding stunningly reminiscent of Michael Stipe during the band's IRS years. The second track, Get on the Road, features the Snow Patrol man duetting with the actress and occasional singer Zooey Deschanel. The duo's voices work well together on the mournful pastoral tune, but then it gets rather similar to Lightbody's other band, with a few unimaginative minutes of rocking out at the end.
Dead American Writers is the catchiest thing here, with touches of Neil Young and Crazy Horse at their most energetic. Lightbody's occasional Celtic touches shine through the love song That Silver Necklace but for an album that is intended to be a departure from his day job, there are times when The Place We Ran From sounds almost indistinguishable from a Snow Patrol release. With a cast of alt-country and rock veterans, the musicianship feels thoroughly authentic and accomplished throughout and Lee's productions lends the record both warmth and chilliness at the same time. Colburn gives a perfectly understated rhythmic performance, never stealing the limelight but never shying away from it either - as fans of the Glasgow group have come to expect by now.
The album's loveliest moment is undoubtedly the weary Appalachian lullaby, I am a Landslide, which sees Lightbody's countryman and previous collaborator Iain Archer singing. Not unlike Get on the Road, this song proves that emotional songwriting is at the centre of this album, but also that the group is at its most effective when collaborating closely, rather than just making-up the numbers as Lightbody's new backing band.
Heartbreaker (2000) Adams was just 27 when he recorded this remarkable solo debut, a glorious salute to his influences (Steve Earle, Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan) with guest vocals from Emmylou Harris, and a searing response to the end of a relationship, which like all great country records underlines that universal truth: love hurts. Bonnie Prince Billy
I See A Darkness (1999) This landmark album from Louisville's dark balladeer Will Oldham, matches traditional Appalachian folk with a contemporary lo-fi sparseness to create a lyrical, brooding masterpiece. The title track, re-recorded by Johnny Cash on his American Recordings III album, still astonishes a decade on. Calexico and Iron & Wine
In The Reins (2005) A great introduction to two of the best exponents of contemporary Americana: Sam Beam's Texan lullabies, set over Calexico's dusty, hazy arrangements of slide guitars, brushed drums and dazzling mariachi flourishes is a modern desert classic.