You could be forgiven for looking sideways at the current revival of synth-pop. When it fell out of favor at the end of The Lite Ages, it was swept from the charts by pissed-off kids in torn jeans whose nihilist growls felt closer to the truth than anything you could dance to — unless you were moshing. Much of the contemporary music that nods to synth-pop bears a heavy burden of nostalgia for a time when its practitioners' biggest concerns involved slap bracelets, and "Iraq" was a funny word belonging to adults.
But just as there were artists in the '80s who genuinely stretched the boundaries of pop music — think Cyndi Lauper, Prince and even Madonna — there are players now whose interests reach beyond basking in the glow of the neon nightlight. Case in point: Parade of Youth, the debut full-length from Music City quartet Ponychase, can fill dance floors, but it does so while tackling tough issues and sounding damned good in the bargain.
Ponychase is the brainchild of frontwoman and chief songwriter Jordan Caress, long a multi-instrumentalist MVP in backing bands for Caitlin Rose, Tristen and others, who now puts her own extraordinary voice in the limelight. But the Ponychase sound is a collaborative effort that fully involves her bandmates, a supergroup of sorts: Synthesizer work is handled by Jordan's gifted brother Alex Caress, who also leads honky-tonk heartbreakers Little Bandit, and then there's razor-sharp guitarist Beth Cameron, the mastermind behind much-loved rock group Forget Cassettes. Drummer Brian Siskind, whose Fognode and Good Rester projects dance on the tightrope between art and pop, not only programs period-correct dance beats that throb and flutter, but also performs live on a vintage electronic kit. Though the group built Parade of Youth layer by layer, tracking each instrument separately, there's a remarkably live, fluid feel — a credit to each member's lengthy experience and unique perspectives.
"I love bringing the songs to the band," Jordan tells the Scene in an email, "because I have no idea what they are going to add. Beth is so unpredictable, and always comes up with a part that I would have never thought of myself. I think that in the end, her rock instincts make the songs transcend the label of 'synth-pop' and evoke more guitar-based music of the '80s and '90s."
What ultimately separates Parade of Youth from the pack is Jordan Caress' lyrics, deeply passionate to the outsider experience that is being an LGBT adolescent, but never self-indulgent, even in the most personal moments. There's absolute anguish in songs like "House in the Valley," in which she asks, in a breathless tone that captures the sound of fighting off shame, "This word, this disease — can you still see me?" Another standout, "Friends," finds confidence in a complex and cutting kiss-off, declaring, "To be truly alone, it takes a special kind of friend," over a driving, upbeat New Wave riff.
There's no disguising the pain, but it's always tempered by a gathering of strength and a push forward. The title track, which opens the album, and the closer, "Melissa," bookend Parade of Youth with statements of resolve in the face of doubt, putting everyone on notice that she's not about to give up on herself to please anyone. It's a stance that speaks to everyone in our intensely image-conscious, crowded society, but at the same time, it's straight from the heart. And, as if there were need for an added bonus, you can even dance to it.Visit Ponychase's Bandcamp page.