Me and Dr. Frank, we have a history.
Back in 1994-1995 (or thereabouts), the Mr. T Experience (or, if you prefer, MTX) owned my heart. I was in the throes of my pop-punk obsession and was wowed by several revelatory performances by the “songs about girls” trio (who toured with the Riverdales that summer), and the then-fresh six song EP The Mr. T Experience and the Women Who Love Them. This is still my favorite release from the surprisingly durable band’s later “Starship” (as in “Jefferson”) incarnation (as opposed to the earlier, Jon Von (later of neo-garage legends the Rip Offs) years, of which Making Things With Light does the most for me). In short order I accumulated most of their full-lengths (only Milk Milk Lemonade is absent in my collection, more due to circumstance than to willful decision).
As 1995 melted into 1996, MTX released Love Is Dead, one of the best (along with most of Green Day’s notable output) entries in the mid-90’s pop punk craze, was released and still stands tall as MTX most fully realized: loud, buzzy guitars, sickeningly catch songs, spot-on two-part harmony provided by heartthrob bassist Joel Reader, and last but not least, Dr. Frank’s endearing “I’m cleverer than you” lyrics.
Alas, MTX’s biggest success was also the cause of the band’s subsequent missteps. After producing Love Is Dead, a perfectly-executed, completely representative statement of what MTX was all about, it was (with the benefit of hindsight) foolish to try and follow it with more of the same. Oops. 1997’s Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You was doomed because Frank tried to do the same thing again, with no room for improvement to work with. The result was tired, cliche, and in places just ANNOYING, with songs like “Swiss Army Girlfriend” standing in as blatant and inferior rip-offs of past glories (in this case, the early I’m-in-love-with-supermarket-products tune “Velveeta”) and, after four or five thorough listens, relegated to the shelf.
Happily, (and now we finally turn, almost parenthetically, to the album in question), Alcatraz is a success (with some reservations) because Frank et al. seem to have decided to give their first try at their definitive POP album, instead of again trying to top the untoppable Love Is Dead.
Yep, the songs that click best on Alcatraz—“Hey Emily”, “Perhaps”, “We’ll Get By” are clean-tone mid-tempo numbers—are tunes that, while they share Dr. Frank’s trademark pun-laden wordplay, would have been pretty much wholly alien to their Love Is Dead-era and Revenge Is Sweet… material. Even on the more standard up-tempo MTX three-chord chuggers comes the texture and inventiveness that I had been beginning to believe MTX wouldn’t be capable of. It’s NOT as simple and superficial as “ooh, they’re using some keyboards now” (as some have suggested), but it’s “ooh, I wouldn’t have expected them to slow down the tempo for one line of the song, then speed it back up again” or “I didn’t think Dr. Frank could reach that note” (it’s an imperfect stretch, which makes it the more remarkable that it’s there at all). It’s not like MTX has turned into Stereolab, or even Oasis (as their label Lookout bafflingly suggested several months ago), though I swear the melody for the verse of title track “Alcatraz” was lifted from Buffalo Tom’s “Treehouse”. But I’m pleased as punch that they’re willing to do an end-around around their former self-imposed stylistic limitations.
What ultimately keeps Alcatraz from being an unqualified home run (and why it gets a rating lower than maybe the last few paragraphs seem to warrant) is that the many of the remaining songs too closely resemble Revenge Is Sweet…‘s stylistic conceits (e.g. “We’re Not No One,” “Our Days Are Numbered”), and the hollow wanna-be anthemic “Re-Activate Your Heart,” whose nearly four full minutes seems like an eternity. Well, that, and for some reason Dr. Frank took what would have been the best song on the record, “Naomi” (featuring vocal delivery and melody in spots that calls to mind Elvis Costello), and saddled it with a wholly disappointing chorus (“Naomi! Naomi!”) that doesn’t live up to the rest of the song, despite the fact that it comes from the man who managed to make the words “Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba” sound revolutionary in 1996.
But let’s not end this lengthy, baggage-laden review negatively. Alcatraz is a welcome indication that the MTX Starship has righted itself and is back on course. Phew!