Born and raised out of the rural Blue Ridge Mountains, Pontiak is an East Coast three-piece out of Virginia, USA. Formed by brothers Jennings, Van, and Lain Carney, Pontiak plays all-thrills/no-frills alternative rock reminiscent of Pavement and a bit of the brashness of Fugazi with psychedelic and garage rock tendencies on Innocence, their eighth full-length since 2004.
Pontiak’s southern American rock upbringing is instantly recognizable in the jump-around, slightly sludgy title track and the anthemic Shining, which recall Queens Of The Stone Age and early ’90s Stephen Malkmus releases in their unfettered fuzz. Pontiak, like their alternative cousins, find refuge in unapologetic masculinity under a humid haze of guitar feedback. While not as commanding as Pontiak’s forbearers, Innocence is still a striking release.
Lead vocalist Van Carney has a disaffected vocal style that’s strongly reminiscent of Rob Dickinson’s early work with Catherine Wheel or Jonathan Richman in The Modern Lovers. He slurs along to nonsensical lyrics and half-lucid admonishments that could be made to anyone who’ll listen, from their audiences to some girls who the Carney brothers are trying to pick up at a bar, as seen in the “hey, wait a minute” chorus on Lack Lustre Rush. Jennings and Lain offer some strong backing vocals that nicely compliment Van’s croon, such as on Wildfires and Darkness Is Coming. Their off-key approach won’t be for everyone, but fans of psychedelic or garage rock should find it appealing.
Following in their desert/southern rock pedigree, Innocence is heavily rooted in fuzzy guitar-led melodies. The album generally has a simplistic yet driving percussion that occasionally falls victim to the loudness war, such as in the heavily clipped Wildfires, which is ironic and a little disappointing seeing as how it is one of the softer songs on the album, as far as this kind of alternative goes.
The guitars are loud, feedback-induced, and meander around with three/four-chord solos that never quite take off but never really have to either, such as on Ghosts. The stripped-down chord structure works pretty well on Surrounded By Diamonds, which is easily one of the highest points on Innocence, featuring a drop-tuned stoner rock vibe, wah-wah pedal abuse, and echo chamber vocals.
There’s a psychedelic slow-rolling moment on It’s The Greatest, and the brothers bring an Appalachian folk twist on the acoustic-led numbers Wildfires and Darkness Is Coming, featuring a backing ensemble of reverbed voices. The arpeggiating fingerstyle guitar work harkens back to ’70s singer-songwriter stylings, while the closer We’ve Got It Wrong brings it all home in one brash, slow-burning hurrah fit for any autumn bonfire in the mountains.
Despite this confluence of ideas, there is little variation evident on Innocence. Other than a few instrumental mix-ups, such as the organ backing on It’s The Greatest, there is little to stop all of the songs from blurring together. Innocence is best experienced in short bursts or by individual tracks. The Carneys’ untrained vocals will turn off some, and the unrefined instrumentation is not as compositionally strong as that of fellow acid rockers Kyuss.
Rather, Pontiak are strongest at their loudest, as the hard Beings Of The Rarest demonstrates in spades. The in-the-red production benefits some areas, though on others, Pontiak push too hard and things are lost in the mix. While Queens Of The Stone Age and other rockers have successfully embraced loud production, Pontiak haven’t quite grasped the ability to push levels while retaining clarity, which drastically brings down the quality of their acoustic ballads and makes those slower songs sound unfinished and slightly ill-conceived.
While Innocence might be easily lost in the pool of “alternative,” despite its flaws it is a strong addition to the band’s already prolific catalogue. With a seriously impressive heritage in southern stoner rock, Innocence is good for those who like their bass up high and their guitars down low. Turn on, tune in, and drop out.