Pony Club - Family Business
The first thing that strikes you about this odd album is that the subject matter is a million miles away from what pop music is traditionally about. Mark Cullen paints pictures that reveal the tiny frustrations, horrors and sheer boredoms of suburban life; holidays in Spain and flowers from the garage forecourt are the main ingredients of these songs and compromise and loneliness seem to be the operative factors. Listening to the album as a whole is an affair that leaves the listener somewhat drained and depressed. Of course, that's not a negative criticism at all as that's what it seems that Cullen has set out to do.
Musically, the album never veers from it's course through the dead center of fairly middle of the road pop, and given the subject matter, this approach is perfect. Cullen knows a hook when he hears one, and the album is heavy with the sort of vocal flourishes that dig little holes for themselves in your memory. It won't be long before the likes of 'knees' and One of a Million, with it's little sax riffs, are firm favorites. 'Knees' in particular, is one of those perfect sounding pop songs that Cullen, with his strong, lyrical and distinctive voice, lifts high above the average. The subject is one of domestic cold war, and the chorus of "I hate it when we fight/It starts when I wake up/I'm walking on eggshells all my life" is the sort of thing you long to hear in the charts.
Some critics have compared Pony Club to Pulp, and the similarities are there, but the big difference here is that there is no wall of humour to shield the listener. Cullen is bored and slightly pissed off and he means it. Listen to "We've got a hatchback silver focus/Just like every family around us/I shone once like a brand new trumpet/Now I'm just another fascist Muppet" from Buried in the Suburbs for proof. It's a great song, with a great funky feel to it, but not an uplifting one. Elsewhere, the mood is even more glum. Bed To Work contains the heart rending lyric - "You know I'm strong/And you know I can cope well/But this thing I've become/Isn't having any fun" and the album is full of this sort of thing. It rings truer than most of the sort of thing Pulp write, with not a hint of 'clever' irony.
Family Business is worth a try if you like the sound of an album that moans and complains at you every time you put it on, about how empty and vapid their life is. It's debatable how much this really works, given that none of the characters really have that much to moan about when you take everything into account. Mark Cullen is no Roger Waters, a man who has made a great career out of this sort of thing. It's a sort of concept album in that many of the characters in the songs seem to pop up again and again, they just seem a bit more miserable each time is all. As Denis Leary once said, "Hey pal, life sucks, buy a helmet". The songwriting is solid and Cullen has a charming, soulful voice and it's chock full of interesting and unusual pop music so it has to be considered, at least, a partial success.