- Luke Awtry
- Joe and Jaye MacAskill of Pony Death Ride
Ben Stiller. Cuddle parties. Tough guys on bicycles. These disparate themes, among others, comprise the topical potpourri that musical comedy duo Pony Death Ride felt were absolutely, positively necessary to sing about on their new album, Unthemed. Also, Crispin Glover.
Fresh on the Burlington scene, married couple Joe and Jaye MacAskill moved to Vermont from their longtime home base of San Diego in July. After careful consideration (and x-ing out 90 percent of the country for various reasons), they landed on the Queen City in part because of its robust music scene. Also highly attractive: the picturesque setting, lower cost of living compared to SoCal, and proximity to Canada — Jaye's homeland. Now that they're settled, the couple plans to open a vintage clothing shop just off the Winooski roundabout in the former Onion River Cobbler space.
In normal circumstances (i.e., when live music isn't shut down because of a pandemic), Pony Death Ride probably would have played a bunch of gigs by now, made a ton of local contacts and be prepping for a big holiday show. Instead, the pair settled for a quiet release of their latest LP, a hodgepodge of comedic gold.
Part Burns and Allen vaudevillians, part genre-hopping songsmiths, Pony Death Ride find humor in practically every corner of human existence. The characters they play in their work are "exaggerated, slightly off versions" of themselves, as Jaye put it in a recent interview with Seven Days. The MacAskills are deeply committed to their bits, especially to how they bring them to life.
"The amount of homework you have to do, people wouldn't believe," Joe said. Before recording, he said, he listens to hours and hours of the kind of music he's hoping to ape; he'll note the particular kinds of drums used, the precise tones and how all the elements come together in a way that's genre- or period-correct.
The title of Unthemed refers to Pony Death Ride's past two albums: 2016's feline-focused Cat Sounds and last year's holiday hullabaloo, The First Leon — A Christmas Album. The latter contains one of the group's most perfect tunes, "It's a Tom Waits Christmas." Joe not only achieves a pitch-perfect impression of the grizzled singer-songwriter, but the scene he sets is full of the kinds of hard-luck characters found in Waits' work.
"Usually, [our songs] start out with just a weird idea," Jaye said. "And then it's like, what kind of music does the topic evoke? Sometimes you want it to be something that contrasts, so it's completely absurd and makes no sense. And other times the style and the lyrics are more aligned."
Unthemed is available to stream on all major platforms. Read on for a track-by-track look at the album.
Like a talking-head radio spot, the MacAskills warmly invite you to listen to the new Pony Death Ride album, coming to you in 2020 — or 2021. "We don't want to make any promises," Jaye quips on the track, a cheeky nod to the uncertainty they felt when recording.
"Ben Stiller, Movie Killer"
First, Joe and Jaye bear no ill will to the Meet the Parents actor. But Joe plucked the title out of thin air and felt it was too snappy not to see where it could go. The result is a stinging first-wave punk song that rakes Stiller across the coals for ruining every film he's ever been in.
"Crispin Glover Be My Lover"
Another case of the title dictating the content of a song, "Crispin Glover Be My Lover" is a Jaye-led, Go-Go's-style new-wave pop song about the weirdest dude in showbiz.
"I'm Not a Bear"
Because of Joe's imposing stature and deep, penetrating voice, he's often mistaken for a bear — a slang term for a large, hairy homosexual male. This case of mistaken identity frequently happened at San Diego Pride, the city's gay pride celebration.
"Suddenly, for a day, Joe gets to be a sex symbol," Jaye explained.
As Joe put it, the song itself is like Garth Brooks' "Unanswered Prayers" crossed with Barry Manilow's "Mandy." Its dramatic tone underscores the silliness of the whole situation.
Though they've never been to a cuddle party themselves, the MacAskills sure seem to have a good handle on how it works.
"Whatcha doin' tonight?" Jaye asks in the track's sketch-like introduction.
"Oh, I'm looking for someone to hold my hand and just gaze into my eyes," Joe replies.
"Oh, well, I'm looking for hard-core sex!" Jaye snaps back. After deciding to "meet in the middle," the song erupts into a bouncy polka. The pair describes, in surprisingly accurate detail, the various rules and regulations of nonsexual activities that transpire at cuddle parties.
"Where Were You When Buddy Holly Died?"
Calling on the sonic touchstones of 1950s-era rock and roll, "Where Were You When Buddy Holly Died?" is about, as Jaye explained, "people in music scenes who do a lot of talking" — especially people who maybe don't know what they're talking about.
"Where Did All the Ladies Go?"
In this loungy, old-school bossa nova take on pop-rock, the song's lyrics express what Jaye calls "non-politically correct values," which pair well with the throwback style.
"Old music, old style of thought," Jaye said.
"It's like Lawrence Welk became a jerk and sang that song," Joe added.
"Don't Be a Pussy"
The heavy satire of "Don't Be a Pussy" might be lost on some folks, so don't clutch your pearls too hard listening to the acoustic jazz number's lyrics. It's the yang to the previous track's yin.
"You're more like a whimper / When I need a hiss / You listen to Toto / While I'm playing Kiss," Jaye sings with biting snark.
"Let Me Tell You 'Bout My Bike"
"Let Me Tell You 'Bout My Bike" is sort of a one-joke garage-rock song. Rather than a souped-up Harley-Davidson, Joe boasts about what turns out to be a tricked-out bicycle, much to Jaye's disdain.
"We Don't Have Any Kids and It's Awesome"
At ages 51 and 48, respectively, Joe and Jaye are frequently the odd couple in their peer group. However, most of their actual friends don't have kids, so they haven't had to apologize much for the way the twangy tune rubs the freedom of being childless in the listener's face.
"It's been well received," Jaye said.
"Love Is Like a..."
The ukulele-driven vaudeville sound of "Love Is Like a..." is Pony Death Ride's comfort zone, and this song has been part of their act for a long time.
"It's a good one to do at live shows," Jaye said. "It can be stripped down to just a ukulele and a tambourine."
Full of setups and punch lines, the "love" song does a better job of highlighting the trials and tribulations of relationships than the lovey-dovey stuff you'd find in a greeting card.
"In Retrospect I Don't Think Phil Collins Is That Bad"
A completely stripped-down ukulele tune, "In Retrospect I Don't Think Phil Collins Is That Bad" is one of the album's most silly, frivolous and self-explanatory entries.
"Shut Up, Ted Nugent Is Talking"
The MacAskills originally titled this one "Shut Up, John Mayer Is Talking" but "switched over to a more fertile field of ridicule" by putting a more easily hateable target in its crosshairs.
"The guitar riff is just 'Stranglehold' sped up," Joe said, referring to Nugent's 1975 hard-rock song. "He's just a laughable guy."
The two stand by the song, to the point that they pasted it onto Nugent's Facebook page over and over until they received the notification, "Ted Nugent likes this."
"His Name Is Jim"
On the closing track, another uke-heavy ditty, Jaye sings sweet words of love — to some guy named Jim, much to Joe's chagrin.