Guitarist David Ponder is sitting in a bar on Lower Greenville, feeling cautiously optimistic. His band, Somebody's Darling, just released its sophomore album, Jank City Shakedown, and he thinks it's something special.
"I don't know if I would call this album a make-it-or-break-it record," Ponder says, "but I do feel like the songs were made for bigger stages."
One listen to Shakedown and it's obvious Ponder is right. The album bristles with authentic country as well as some rhythm and blues, strutting from opening cut "Cold Hands" to closer "The Middle." It's easily one of the best local releases of the year and should bring the band the national exposure it so richly deserves, but Ponder's caution is understandable.
Somebody's Darling; Goodnight Ned; Bravo, Max!
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When Somebody's Darling's debut effort came out in 2009, many critics (including this one) predicted big things for the band. Some high-profile gigs and a tour with Stoney LaRue followed, but the band's momentum somehow fizzled. It was as if they hit a sophomore slump before the sophomore album. Despite the letdown, Ponder sees a silver lining.
"The first album didn't blow up, but it did give us the freedom to work on our own and hone in on what we wanted to sound like," he says.
Indeed, the vague alt-country influences of the debut have been replaced by a lean, loud delivery that has more in common with Creedence Clearwater Revival than the Old 97's. It was a conscious effort by the band to toughen up the sound and incorporate a more pronounced R&B influence.
"What you are hearing now is us," Ponder says. "What you're hearing is the culmination of two and a half years of hard work."
This time around, they went into the studio on a mission. Ten days and 80 songs later, the quintet emerged with what would become a signature effort. All that was left was to separate the wheat from the chaff. Enter producer Stuart Sikes.
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"I've always been a huge fan of his," Ponder says. "I like a lot of the records he has produced. His production work has been as good as anyone in the country. I was really influenced by Stuart's work on [The Greatest] by Cat Power."
While the band was happy with the work producer Dan Baird (Georgia Satellites) did on the debut, Ponder says Sikes helped them push the envelope on Shakedown.
"It was a lot easier to extend the sound this time around," Ponder explains. "It was a combination of a lot of things. We grew up, the songs were different and we were working with a guy like Stuart. He never pulled the emergency brake when we pushed things a bit."
Sikes' production skills lie in letting a band grow under his watchful eye, and according to Ponder, that's exactly what happened.
"We didn't have anyone telling us what to do," he says. "We oversaw the whole process. It was incredibly freeing. We did a lot of growing up and realized that we could be bold."
And songs like "Wedding Clothes" and "Back to the Bottle" not only boldly push the envelope, they tear it to pieces. Much of this can be credited to improved writing and having such an excess of songs to choose from, but one cannot discount the powerhouse vocals of Amber Farris. Ponder certainly doesn't.
"Amber does more than any other female singer in the area," he says. "I don't think it gets said enough. She can hold her own as a vocalist and a guitar player. Having her in the band definitely gives us an edge."
On Shakedown, that edge is razor sharp, but will it be enough to propel the band out of the bars and into arenas?
"The goal is to be in the position to make one more album and have people that would care to hear it," Ponder says. "At the basic level, the goal is just to make it to the next album."
Fair enough, but would bigger stages lead to relocating to another scene such as Chicago or Nashville?
"I am actually really encouraged by the Dallas scene," he says. "It's an exciting scene that is beginning to bubble up again. I think bands are realizing this and are promoting each other's shows. It's almost better in a way than it ever was. I think bands from Dallas are scrappier now. They have to work harder than bands from places where the music scene is supposedly better."
One thing the Dallas scene supplied is fans with deep pockets. Jank City Shakedown was financed entirely by Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website for various creative projects. While some have criticized Kickstarter as artistic panhandling, Ponder claims the site is just another way for fans to support the bands they like.
"The Kickstarter campaign started in January and we reached our goal of $8,500 by the summer," Ponder says. "We didn't go down that road without a solid feeling that we could reach that goal. I wasn't surprised, but it was an overwhelming experience, a way to feel your fans and friends. It put some wind in our sails. It wasn't one person putting up the money for the album; it was a hundred people contributing. We took the process really seriously and wanted to live up to the expectations of those who contributed."
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Ponder, Farris, drummer Nate Wedan, keyboardist Michael Talley and bassist Wade Cofer have certainly lived up to those expectations. They even recently recorded a Daytrotter session while on tour in support of Shakedown.
"It is great to be playing live," says Ponder. "I think that is the thing that has kept the band together for so long. It is difficult to transfer what we do live to a recording studio, but I think that is a challenge for many bands. I am proud of what we can do on stage."
Perhaps all this good fortune means Somebody's Darling is about to hit the big time. Bring it on, says Ponder, along with any criticism of selling out.
"We will gladly go on tour with the likes of Zac Brown. Let me go on the record and hope that some of his people will read this. We are ready for it."