The Dead Milkmen
Big Words Make the Baby Jesus Cry, Dark Clouds Gather over Middlemarch, The Great Boston Molasses Flood
Music-industry second acts aren’t particularly common, but then, nor are they rare. Ben Folds Five re-emerged, phoenix-like, two years ago after a decade on hiatus (though, admittedly, the solo Folds and his overlapping repertoire weren’t exactly consigned to oblivion). The trio’s 2012 “comeback” album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, was more like the sound of Ben Folds Five having never really gone away. And that’s just one of several recent examples, plucked at random out of an imaginary hat that would also include the names of Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr., Suede, and My Bloody Valentine. In the past few weeks alone, David Bowie has engineered a second (or perhaps third) coming that has prophets of the Scripture taking notes.
By comparison, The Dead Milkmen were veritable trendsetters. They officially reunited a full five years ago, with bassist Dan Stevens replacing the late Dave Blood, but it took until 2011 for that reunion to bear fruit as The King in Yellow (2011), fittingly named after a supernatural play that was rumored to induce melancholy and madness in anyone who read it. The music and subject matter of King in Yellow were and still are quintessential Milkmen. In forty-three minutes of raucously melodic twang, the quartet questions the enduring appeal of Norah Jones, takes reality shows to their logical (and sadistic) extreme, barks corporate marching orders at would-be revolutionaries, and draws grim parallels between the 13th century and the 21st. Yet the flippancy that had characterized the band’s early releases, snark-punk classics like Big Lizard in My Backyard (1985) and Beelzebubba (1988), was notable for its absence. For all its pop-culture riffs, King in Yellow is a fraught, angry album, preoccupied with end times and existential hopelessness. Whereas in their youth the Milkmen ridiculed the absurdity of their contemporaries at one comic-ironic remove, the persistence and pervasiveness of that absurdity twenty-five years on seems to have finally gotten under their skin.
Since King in Yellow appeared, the band has been active on a Bob Pollard kind of level, releasing a rapid successiom of limited vinyl 7-inches accompanied by digital EPs. First was Big Words Make the Baby Jesus Cry. Then came Dark Clouds Gather over Middlemarch. The third, released just days ago, is The Great Boston Molasses Flood. Each 7″ includes two tracks; the digital download versions (which come bundled with the 7″) feature a third. Lumped together, the songs would form the lion’s share of a reasonably strong and diverse LP. Individually, they offer incremental snapshots of how the band’s sound is metamorphosing in the wake of King in Yellow.
Of the title track on Big Words Make the Baby Jesus Cry, the best that can be said is that it’s mildly amusing (Rodney Anonymous’ delivery of that line in the chorus is so uncharacteristically tender it almost seems genuine), but it falls shy of the Milkmen’s satirical bullseyes like “Methodist Coloring Book” and “Tiny Town.” It offers us a straw man and woman, the first of whom prides himself on not reading (“[t]hat’s how doubts climb into your head”). The latter is suspicious of newspapers, organs that are clearly run by — per the Milkmen’s usual grab bag of conspiracy-theory bogeymen — “gay Muslim Jewish spies.” The highlight comes during the bridge with Joe Jack Talcum’s schoolmarm admonishment: “If you use a big word, the terrorists win!”
With “Somewhere over Antarctica” and “Mary Ann Cotton (The Poisoner’s Song),” we find ourselves in the same territory as the more earnest and philosophical Talcum-led songwriting of Soul Rotation (1992). (On a side note, while it remains the oddball in the Milkmen’s discography, Soul Rotation has held up far better than its past and present detractors would lead you to believe. Welcome news, then, that Hollywood Records is finally putting that album back in circulation along with 1993’s Not Richard, but Dick.) With their respective themes of derangement and death, both “Antarctica” and “Mary Ann Cotton” continue the grim motif of King in Yellow.
“Dark Clouds Gather over Middlemarch” is hard to pair with anything in the Milkmen’s stockpile of two hundred (give or take) songs. The song moves between catharsis and relative restraint; a synthesizer weaves between the bass and guitar lines with a hollow growl. Its story, told in elliptical vignettes, ends, like so much of the Milkmen’s recent material, in death — which makes the band’s days of mocking pretentious club-hoppers and hunting for hallucinogenic highs in banana peels look positively halcyon. Not even the sainted memory of The Gipper is spared from homicidal impulses: “Ronald Reagan Killed the Black Dahlia” repeats the accusation twelve times in ninety-one skittish seconds. Closing the EP is a cover of Rome’s “Little Rebel Mine,” a 3/4-time ballad on which Anonymous duets with singer Audrey Crash to beautiful and haunting effect. You’d be forgiven a double-take at this point. Beautiful and haunting? From the band that brought us “In Praise of Sha Na Na” and “My Many Smells”?
The Great Boston Molasses Flood is a different animal altogether. The synth that threads through Middlemarch‘s triptych is less prominent. Instead the EP channels the gods of guitar rock. Its title track — reminiscent, in the best possible way, of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” — is a grinding, black-leather blues number that recounts the tale of “sweet sticky death” that oozed across downtown Boston in 1919. That’s followed by “Now I Wanna Hold Your Dog,” a caffeinated, ninety-second punk frenzy that somehow manages to repeat the phrase, “Some call it ‘class warfare,’ but I call it ‘love'” twelve times (vivid echoes of the previous 7-inch’s B-side) and still finds time to demand someone’s dog in passable German.
And then comes the pièce de résistance of all three EPs: “Anthropology Days.” It’s a feisty and deeply catchy compendium of episodes of injustice, stupidity and inhumanity — “a little lesson in history … a little song just to fire you up,” Anonymous sing-shouts during the chorus. The 8-bit electronica and reversed guitar are, to my recollection, a first for the Milkmen, who’ve never held back from pillaging genres like ska, ’80s Euro-dance, disco, reggae or surf rock, and then bending them to their willfully warped ends.
The tally of all this is that The Dead Milkmen are back, baby, and in the truest sense. Their reunion — sadly, without Dave Blood — isn’t (merely) an attempt to ride a wave of late-’80s nostalgia and eke more mileage out of “Punk Rock Girl;” rather, it marks their full-fledged return as an active, evolving band without losing the irreverence and ADHD songwriting that are at the root of their lasting appeal. The biggest shift, and the one that might prove a hurdle for longtime listeners, is the frustration, or even contempt that seethes just beneath the surface of their newer songs. Their punchlines aren’t meant to entertain, but to slice through a cocoon of apathy and provoke or wound. It’s not as if the Milkmen are through poking fun at racists, homophobes, warmongers, hypocrites, bullshitters, hippies, conspiracy theorists, narcissists, gun nuts, snobs, and all-around assholes; it’s just that poking fun has become a more serious business.
Dead Milkmen: deadmilkmen.com