In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of Car Seat Headrest’s new record: songs about cars.
Sub Pop recording artists Pond always felt like a band on the outside looking in on the ’90s grunge explosion in Seattle. Part of that may have been geographical: They were originally from Portland (back before that became synonymous with fey artistic impulses and a TV comedy backdrop) and lacked the deeply ingrained relationships the era’s biggest acts shared. On a more musical level, it was a question of taste. The band always seemed more like an American answer to the shoegaze scene in Britain, a homegrown variant that blended psychedelic rock and fuzzed-out pop in equal measure, yet without the retro-roots element of a group like Love Battery.
Ironically, despite never achieving the success that many in its cohort found, the group’s small output (three albums, a handful of singles) has aged far better than most of the band’s contemporaries. While grunge now sounds undeniably of a bygone era, Pond’s records—especially its masterpiece, The Practice Of Joy Before Death—feel almost fresher and more vital than when they were first released. The combination of psych, ambient, shoegaze, and quirky pop aesthetics still teems with invention and life. They were the quiet little band that could, oddballs who toiled in semi-obscurity but who will win in the long run, capturing a sound that endures far past many other acts’ sell-by dates.
Perhaps such low-key dedication to craft is what made them the perfect candidates to write a song about that most underappreciated of indie-band mainstays: the tour van. For such an indelible aspect of the lives of young musical groups, there are remarkably few paeans to their primary mode of transport, and the place where they spend the vast majority of hours on the road. (Lots of car songs out there—remarkably few tour-van songs.) Then again, Pond’s “Van” is a testament to how unconscious the affiliations that musicians have with their transportation is, in that they never think much about it unless it breaks.
Fittingly, the song is as much mood as anything—there aren’t even eight lines of lyrics in total. The frantic guitar freak-out melody is wedded to a swaying midtempo beat, an ambling but steady rhythm that speaks to a mellow steadfastness, much like a reliable van would deliver. It’s described as a “downhill van” (though I always heard it as “damn good van,” which I maintain is truer to the spirit of the song), one that comes “with lots of room and standard air.” They utter a mild complaint—it “smokes an awful lot”—but then again, “so’s our drummer, plus he swears.” And they cap it off with a simple token of appreciation, ruminating on how it “won’t be cheap to grind valve seats / For the silver bow in our van’s hair.” And with that, the song slows to a crawl, the tempo imitating the slowdown of an old tour wagon, overstuffed with instruments, backpacks of dirty clothes, and three exhausted musicians, thankful their trusty metal steed has once more gotten them to the venue on time.