I didn’t want to like Orville Peck when I first listened to him, especially when I learned that the cover art to his debut album, “Pony”, wasn’t just that, but an actual portrait photo. And to be honest, I didn’t think that much of it at first listen, quirky, yes, but also kitschy. With each successive listen, though, I delved deeper into the lyrics and the aesthetic that Peck is creating and yeah, it grew on me. Then, I saw him perform with his band at CityFolk back in the fall and the deal was sealed.
Orville Peck is a stage name. He wears a mask – all the time. He has worked to keep his real identity a secret but given our collective curious nature, we have tried to out him. The little information he has released in interviews, that he has toured quite a bit with punk bands, and that he is from the west coast of Canada, has music writers feeling sure that they have identified him. Peck has never confirmed, nor denied, and I won’t give the suspected name here.
I’d say that it should be the music that’s important but Peck has created an image here, a brand of sorts. A Lone Ranger mask with a long fringe, the ever present cowboy hats, and clothing that ranges from garish and sparkly to rough-hewn but slightly fey. He sings songs about cowboys with a voice Roy Orbison would be proud of, the whistles and plodding bass lines only slightly covering up that he is actually subverting the traditional idea of the cowboy. I remember seeing an exchange on social media between Peck and some critical troll sneering that he wasn’t country, perhaps pointing to the invasion of indie and dream pop sounds on the rodeo. And Peck merely scoffed about the troll being head of the “country police”.
All that to say, “Pony” is quite the debut that has turned a lot of heads, not just for the enigma, but also the obvious talent. Have a listen to my three picks for you below and see what you think.
“Dead of night”: The opening track sets the mood and tone from the beginning. “Dead of night” starts with a lonely guitar intro and finishes with a jaunty banjo outro, calling to mind singing cowboy balladry, full moons, cactus and tumbleweed, coyotes and yodelling, the bonfire at night while the trusty steed is tied a ways away. A lonely remembering of a travelling companion that might’ve been more than just friends, a worried outlaw. “The sun goes down, another dreamless night. You’re right by my side, you wake me up, you say it’s time to ride in the dead of night.” Forlorn and haunting.
“Turn to hate”: A song about being on the outside of things, an outlaw, a migrant cowboy, a musician constantly tour, wearing a mask or otherwise. “Walking out towards the gate. You’ll all be stars, now just you wait, done enough to take the bait. Don’t let my sorrow turn to hate.” It builds from a quiet, almost whispery intro to something of a barn burner, guitars a-flashing, boots a-jumping, and Peck’s by now well-worn vocals warmed up and on a tear. He’s trying not to let the isolation get to him but it’s hard. He just wants it all to be okay. And damned if it doesn’t feel great.
“Big sky”: It all starts with that big and vaunted guitar again, Peck singing gently against it with the pluck of banjo and the shake of a rattlesnake. He is out on the desert plain, alone on his horse, nothing but the wind, the echo, and the huge expanse all around him. There’s something menacing about all the quiet, as if his backing band is made up of ghosts, the ghosts of relationships past. “Fell in love with a rider, dirt king, black crown.” He sings all of this with passion and hurt and a bit of his angsty punk showing. Indeed, it doesn’t quite feel like he’s crying in his beer, does it?
Check back next Tuesday for album #4. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:
10. Chromatics “Closer to grey”
9. Elva “Winter sun”
8. The Twilight Sun “It won/t be like this all the time”
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Ghosteen”
6. The Soft Calvary “The Soft Calvary”
You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.