Orville Peck’s debut album is a pose of excellent form. Pony follows a strict act of almost-ironic, costumed country. It’s endearing for its whole-hearted throwback but grows stiff from over-posturing. The most engaging moments of Pony slyly bring in elements of other genres—lo-fi, dreampop, goth—turning the cowboy painting into a dark silhouette, but Peck for the most part chooses to hammer on classic lyrical tropes and hard push an image of a country rebel. The result is a noir-country period piece in tribute to outlaw country standards like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, or Waylon Jennings mixed with far more modern production.
Opener “Dead of Night” will certainly be one of the most remembered moments of the album. It succinctly captures just about all of the Orville Peck shtick making it both a perfect hook into the record and a totally sufficient summary. A minimal arrangement bathes in reverb making the pared down drum kit, tremolo guitar, and piano echo across a seemingly endless country night. Peck’s baritone packs in the cues that this is a western scene with no restraint speaking of the “strange canyon road,” “stark hollow town,” and even “spending Johnny’s Cash.”
Peck continues to cover the same spacious, baritone-heavy western ground with more or less fanfare on tracks like “Queen of the Rodeo” and “Hope to Die.” “Buffalo Run” builds that sound into a wild-stampede with tom drums and distorted guitar stomping faster and faster in what could resemble any number of post-punk groups covering a country tune. Peck hits a strong, R.E.M.-style jangling alt-country on some of the album’s more upbeat moments, “Turn to Hate” and “Winds Change,” while “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)” leans into more traditional shuffling country with equal charm.
It’s the lo-fi ballad “Kansas (Remembers Me Now)” that leaves one of the most lasting impressions, though. The slightly pinched and crackly sound that begins the track seeming to recall the recording quality of a bygone-era degrades into a bit-crushed fuzz that at first seems a decided step toward the modern world of underground producers but then cycles in and out as if an old vinyl record worn to distortion. It’s the clearest example on Pony of Orville Peck wandering outside his intentionally crafted stage set and illustrates the uncertain balance of the album between invention and throwback. There’s a likeable quality to his determinedly retrospective style, one similar to the vintage pop appeal of She & Him, but it’s an obstacle that prevents Pony from becoming something more.