Written by Matt Salter
Pom Pom Squad had already grabbed the attention of the great and the good when they played their first SXSW show on March 16. By the time we caught their Channel 3 show, word had gotten around about the sweetly sinister, proudly queer pop/grunge act. Pom Pom Squad had our attention.
Pom Pom Squad earned their rep. They brought an uncanny vibe to SXSW’s often anodyne surroundings, a little bit Phil Spector (sweet-sounding music covering up actual evil), a little bit David Lynch (sinister, unsettling content covering up a sweet cinnamon bun of a human being.) That’s a challenging combo to balance: ask either guy. Did Pom Pom Squad do it?
Yes with an “and,” or no with a “but.” Pom Pom Squad knows what it likes: they recorded their show in a literal Lynchian Red Room, carpet pattern from The Shining showing proudly on guitar straps. In the opening minutes, things, frankly, felt a little haunted house, a little Alice Cooper. This writer adores all things sinister, spooky, and otherwise Goth, but was promised sincerity. At first, it seemed like a tease.
As the band got into its stride, however, it got past the creepy tropes and found the real, dark earth of horror. Sinister vibes got with truth-telling lyrics and relentless creative intensity and started to transcend tackiness. At their heart of hearts, Pom Pom Squad has stories to tell. That’s what it’s all about. At their best, they evoked the surreal knife-edge reality of queer and POC life, love, and growing up in these haunted United States, as well as anyone working today. If the music isn’t yet at the level of the lyrics and presentation, and frankly it isn’t, it’s only because the lyrics and presentation are as good as any band working in this idiom today.
As for standouts, the track that hit us hardest was “Cherry Blossom.” For a few taut minutes, shivery music clicked with unsettling visuals and centered lyrics that ruthlessly vivisected old, cold wounds. The other standout was “Crying,” which, true to its name, summoned ghosts out of the old haunted hinterlands of pop, Orbison for sure, but also more deeply buried phantasms like Scott Walker and Estelle Bennett. “Head Cheerleader” killed too.
In fact, it’s hard to pick a favorite flower out of this particular haunted garden. In the end, the slight staginess and the musical chops being half a step behind the concept are forgotten. The songs work; that’s what matters. If you want to be haunted and humming all day, Pom Pom Squad has you covered.
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