Becoming What You Hate finds Pony Express’ Jeff Cloud making his boldest move yet as a songwriter and musician. It’s tempting to see Cloud in light of his affiliation with Starflyer 59 and (until recently) Joy Electric. It’s easy to see him as simply the tall, quiet guy on bass or keyboards, or the man behind the underappreciated Velvet Blue Music. I do it all the time, and therein lies the risk of completely missing Cloud’s own efforts or writing them off as derivative of his friends and allies.
The album’s opening track, “Becoming What You Hate,” quickly does away with that notion. Cloud’s soft vocals whisper “All your feelings are streaming down your leg/All your feelings are becoming what you hate” over bubbling loops, starkly abstract tones, and loosely distorted guitars. It’s a brilliant track, both in its brevity and in the muted sense of alienation that it conveys. If there’s one thing that Cloud has in common with Jason and Ronnie Martin (the two people he’s most closely associated with), it’s melancholy, but this track may be one of most haunting songs the Orange County crew has ever produced.
After that, it’s back to more familiar territory, producing slightly skewed indie pop with hints of Britpop, Jesus & Mary Chain, plenty o’ sad melodies, and surf stylings. But the moments that make me smile are when Pony Express reach past the obvious comparisons and look to the likes of Terry Taylor and Mike Roe for inspiration. The chorus of “Queens of Beirut” is pure Daniel Amos; with its Beatlesque melody and layered vocals, it could be a reincarnation of Daniel Amos’ Motorcycle. “Headlights Are the Answer” tears out of the gates in true Seventy Sevens style, before turning into Pray Naked as covered by the Reid Brothers.
As it stands, Becoming What You Hate makes a perfect companion piece to Starflyer 59’s later albums. I can say that because of how much more self-assured this recording feels. Previous Pony Express releases like The Eastwood Dive showed promise but still came off as Starflyer 59 knockoffs. I’d be lying if I said there isn’t still more than a slight similarity between the two bands — due in part to the fact that many of the same people are involved.
But Becoming What You Hate has its own palette of sounds. You won’t hear the jagged conclusion of “GPA,” with its clashing guitars and collapsing drums, on Leave Here A Stranger, nor will you find the bizarre choral effects that close the harmonica-laced “Sister Says.” It’s during moments like these where Cloud steps into avant-pop territory without a shred of pretense. It’s also where you really sense Cloud finally coming into his own, crafting music that’s able to stand on its own, not in the shadows of others.