By Cher Guevara, Staff Writer
Queer country’s masked stranger Orville Peck is back in the saddle for “Show Pony,” the follow-up to his already cult classic debut “Pony.” This six-song EP was allegedly recorded right before the shit hit the fan with the pandemic and was originally slated for release back in June. It was pushed to August on Peck’s request; he wanted the people’s attention focused on the George Floyd protests and not on his new record. So after two more months of waiting, the new EP has dropped. Was it worth the wait?
The record opens with “Summertime”, a somber ballad with slow, thundering drums and the twangy steel of Luke Schneider. Peck croons in his signature tone, sounding like the bastard love child of Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. While most songs about the summer are about fun in the sun and chasing love, Peck’s number turns a dirge as his laments “Asking where the time’s gone/dreaming with the lights on / Trying to keep your eyes on something along the rise / You and I – bide our time / And I miss summertime”. It’s the perfect cut for this twisted year of 2020: where has our summer gone? It was blown away in a cloud of tear gas and a rising butcher’s bill at the hands of the pandemic.
“No Glory in the West” continues the march of the somber, reflective tone, with Peck’s baritone vocals accented expertly by the campfire chords of guitarist Duncan Hay Jennings. While the song is deeply rooted in the country traditions of lonesome cowboy songs made famous by the likes of Gene Autry and Tex Ritter, you can’t help but relate this old-style song to our times. As Peck sings about his troubles on the road and the lack of victories, it’s hard not to think of the revolutionaries on the streets of America tonight and their long road ahead, no guarantees of glory, wondering when and where the struggle will end.
Peck sits at the piano bench for “Drive Me, Crazy”, another cut embedded in American country tradition, this time a take on trucker country. But Peck turns the genre on its head; while at first listen it sounds like your typical lonely trucker song about the love Orville left behind, closer listening reveals that he’s serenading his old big rig truck, “Breaker breaker, break hearts / 10-4, daddy-o”. It’s a refreshing glimpse of Peck’s gonzo humor after opening with a pair of sad ones.
Getting on a nostalgia kick, Peck looks back on his childhood with “Kids,” a sparse ballad with some outstanding guitar and bass work, with the chords dueling and echoing off each other as Orville quietly sings about his long-ago youth. This track cuts deep in the queer community, as most of us had a difficult childhood in one way or another, facing ostracism for who we were and who we loved. But Peck offers us the ray of hope, singing “I keep thinking we’ll disappear but years go by / Still neither one of us has died”. He speaks truth: despite the odds against us, we’re all still alive, still struggling, still loving, and still smiling.
Well what’s a new Peck record without at least one song that should be a Top Ten radio single? Even though he’s still essentially an underground artist, Orville brings along mainstream country superstar Shania Twain for the duet “Legends Never Die”. It’s got all the big country staples: a slicked-up sound and a boot-scootin’ rhythm to go with it. But it’s done with a nod and a wink, a campy John Waters take on mainstream country. This is one that could be played in a rowdy honky tonk and nobody there would get the joke. And though it’s tongue-in- cheek doesn’t mean the song is empty, as Peck and Twain sing loudly, “I said let’s go – baby / I got nerves of steel / It’s my show – gonna feel the way I feel / Another blow ain’t gonna stop me / Wait and see / You got nothing if you ain’t got pride so honey take the wheel”. With Twain along for the ride and a slicked up sound, this could potentially be the song that breaks queer country into mainstream America.
Orville closes out his new record with an old cover, “Fancy”, first recorded by Bobbie Gentry and made a Top Ten hit back in 1969. While Gentry’s original was dark dancing groove about hard times growing up, Peck turns it into something out of a black-as-night arthouse film, growling into the mic like Nick Cave with quiet, downright terrifying, musical accompaniment that explodes into a noisy squeal at the end. It’s a pure vision from hell and a prayer to gods who may or may not deliver Orville from his demons. It’s a fitting end to an EP that is nothing short of brilliant.
I’ve been doing music journalism for the past fifteen years and it’s extremely rare that I come across records that I would consider perfect (there are less than a dozen), but this is one of them. This is thirty minutes of distilled brilliance. Peck and his backing gang have unleashed the perfect record for our troubled times. Sure, there’s not much in the way of light-heartedness or hillbilly rockin’, but that’s not what we need right now. We as a nation are on a painful search for truth and Orville has given us the soundtrack for it. I’m not sure what he has cooking, but it’s gonna be a Sisyphean task to top “Show Pony.”
“Show Pony” is on Columbia Records and is available on all major services.