Years ago, singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston said that he thought Chuck Cleaver was one of the best songwriters in America, adding that he had almost dismissed Ass Ponys because of their stupid name. "It's like they're daring me to hate them," Johnston said at the time. Other than the record label that issues the music, very little has changed for Cincinnati's Ass Ponys in the years since Johnston's endorsement. With a rootsy rock sensibility that's as informed by John Cale and the Velvet Underground as by Gram Parsons and Neil Young, the Ass Ponys chug and churn in tandem with Cleaver's cinematically rich lyrics.
Cleaver remains one of this country's most potent and talented songwriters. His wordplay can encompass hazily obscure metaphors or pop culture benchmarks, as though he were intent on becoming a rock-lyricist answer to comedian Dennis Miller. His allusion to actor John Carradine in "Kung Fu Reference" is surpassed only by his love-as-fast-food comparison in "Only," which is outdone by the hillbilly freak show of "Baby in a Jar" and the classic rock ass-kick of "Butterfly." Cleaver and co-guitarist Bill Alletzhauser create a shifting sonic quilt that's as much a reaction to Americana as it is an expansion of it. The rhythm section of bassist Randy Cheek and drummer Dave Morrison makes whatever big rock noise is needed, from a pounding foundation to a slippery element that coexists with the arrangement more than it grounds it. This very fluid approach means that Ass Ponys rarely make the same sound twice on any album, and while that might play hell with radio programmers, it suits Chuck Cleaver and his wild Ponys just fine.