Album Review: "Iron Ponies" by Provincial Parks

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 15, 2009

Traditionally, the music industry has existed to solve two important problems: how to produce music recordings, and how to distribute them. Both of these were intensely capital- and labour-intensive exeercises, so they required a concentration of wealth to finance the front-end costs and a professional class of producers, engineers, session musicians and A&R people to feed bands into it and keep it working.

At the same time, the scarcity and high cost of producing and distributing music meant two things: 1) the music labels had to filter potential acts before producing them, and 2) the labels were at a significant advantage when it came to signing contracts with musicians.

Of course, it's old news now that new technologies are well on the way to solving the problem of how to distribute music. The music industry is in the throes of a crisis over filesharing, which allows musicians to distribute their music (and for their fans to share and spread it) at effectively no cost.

The collapse of distribution costs has been devastating for an industry that exists partly to distribute music, but at least they could still claim necessary expertise in producing it.

On listening to Iron Ponies, the new EP by Toronto's Provincial Parks, I find myself thinking it's only a matter of time until the mass amateurization already sweeping across journalism and photography comes to demolish the second pillar of the music industry.

Provincial Parks are Richard, Pete, Scott and Will, four Torontonians in their mid-20s who have been playing together for just over two years (the first three started playing together a few months before Will joined).

Like most indie albums, Iron Ponies was mostly recorded and produced in the band's basement near Bloor and Ossington - albeit with engineering help from Inaam Haq and production on two tracks by Brent Bodrug.

Unlike many such albums, Iron Ponies sounds like it could have been put together in a professional studio.

The band says the album was "recorded using Logic Pro 7, mixed using Pro Tools with the help of European beer, whiskey, cigarettes for some and any other sound-making device that we could get our hands on and use in some way, shape, or form. We really knew what we wanted, and we set out to find ways to capture the sounds and mood any way possible."

This is their first recording (and an eight-song EP to boot), so in some ways it's more of a proof-of-concept than an opus. Nevertheless, it's an extremely enjoyable listen, drenched in pop sensibility and rich with catchy melodies and warm harmonies.

Provincial Parks sound like a band still developing their own sound. Their album wears its pop influences on its sleeve, to the point where I can almost hear what they were listening to when they recorded it.

In general, their sound is big and atmospheric, with reverberating guitar rhythms and a clean, upbeat rhythm section.

They seem to be going for what used to be known as the 'U2 sound' (I suppose these days it's the 'Coldplay sound'), an aesthetic most evident on the majestic "The Wasp + The Butterfly", easily the best song on the album.

The driving interplay between rhythm guitar and percussion reminds me in places of British indie rockers Bloc Party, particularly the rousing beats of "Scenes + Faces" and album opener "Open Grave".

At times the music feels slightly overproduced. This often works to the song's advantage - for example, the backing vocals on "Young Bride" evoke the distinctively retro harmonies of Boston's "Don't Look Back" and "More than a Feeling".

Likewise, the instrumental washes in the middle of the otherwise crisp "Love/Confidence" remind me warmly of the shoegazing style that came out of Britain in the late 1980s/early 1990s (Ride, Slowdive, Lush) and has enjoyed a recent resurgence with bands like M83 and Asobe Seksu.

But in the case of Provincial Parks, I get a sense that as they mature, they will gain the confidence not to hide behind so many effects.

This is one area - professional engineering and production - where the music industry still has an advantage; but the margin is narrowing steadily.

In the meantime, Iron Ponies holds the promise of truly great things to come as the band continues to mature and grow. I can't wait to hear their next offering.

Don't be fooled by the title of their closing track ("Too Indie for the CBC") - there are no guarantees in the music business, but if there's any justice, these guys have a very successful music career ahead of them.

Listen to Provincial Parks on their Myspace Page:

Provincial Parks will play a live show at the Casbah on Tuesday, January 20.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.

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By indie fan (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2009 at 16:28:57

I'll have to pick up the EP (always got to support indie musicians). Sounds quite a bit like The Killers to me.

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