What a Long, Strange, and Joyful Trip It's Been
In this reviewer’s perfect world, everyone would own and absolutely love at least one Too Much Joy album. It wouldn’t even have to be my own favorite, Cereal Killers, because as separate discs, everything from Green Eggs and Crack and Son of Sam I Am to Mutiny and . . . Finally has its own merits. Whether you appreciate the bratty and brash youthfulness of their earlier recordings, or the more adult and introspective turn of their later career, there’s a treasure trove of gems to be had on these discs.
Unfortunately, most (if not all) of these discs are now out of print. In spite of a string of news-making incidents that would make a band like Oasis drool for controversy press—such as being arrested for performing 2 Live Crew songs in Broward Country, Florida, or having Newt Gingrich innocently use one of their tunes as an unofficial campaign rally cry only to renounce and deny the action after the former Speaker found out they had a song called “Do a Lot of Drugs”, or being detained by the Secret Service over an in-concert joke about killing the President—Too Much Joy never had much commercial success. Not that crazy stunts and accidental adventures were the band’s goal, but the madcap circumstances that Too Much Joy consistently wound up in (how many bands can claim to have been sued by Bozo the Clown?) were also reflective of the band. On the one level, Too Much Joy were simply a late ‘80s/early ‘90s band that mixed power-pop with punk influences, and whose most distinguishing musical feature was a gulpy, not-particularly-gifted lead singer. On another level, they were as funny as King Missile and the Dead Milkmen, but with a simple and often sunny approach shellacking the seriousness that lay underneath. The combination of juvenile humor and power-pop simplicity made them naively brilliant. But it didn’t sell.
After a brief return with . . . Finally in the late ‘90s, TMJ went on indefinite hiatus. Lead singer and major songwriter Tim Quirk left the gang’s New York homeland for Los Angeles, while Jay Blumenfeld, William Wittman, and Tommy Vinton remained behind. With questions of geography and timing replacing motivation and backing, new material from Too Much Joy seems a long way off, if not completely improbable. But the musicians have never stopped working together. The East Coast crew have worked together, recording and playing as The Its, while Quirk and Blumenfeld continued to write together. That latter relationship has resulted in Wonderlick, which, in keeping with the bizarre history of TMJ, was never really meant to be a band.
Between the two of them, Quirk and Blumenfeld were chasing stability and family life instead of rock star status come the end of the millennium. Despite this, they continued to communicate and discuss song ideas. The newer material was different from TMJ’s more straightforward rock and fun style, and reflected their new roles in life. This difference, and the massive amount of coordination that would have been required, made these songs unsuitable for a new TMJ release. However, deciding to get together and play in the studio together once more, Quirk and Blumenfeld met up to record “I Disappear”, a single song which they then released to fans via the official Too Much Joy website, Susquehanna Hat Company.
The song was an instant success among their die-hard fans. Deciding that the fun of playing in the studio and positive response was worth continuing, Quirk and Blumenfeld made a plan to return to the studio and record 12 more tunes together a song at a time, releasing one song each month to fans via the website, and call the new project Wonderlick. Without a label’s backing and without planned sales of new material, each studio session was funded by fan donations and out of pocket cash. Every month during the year 2001, the old faithful of Too Much Joy were treated to a new composition.
After fans began downloading the songs, Wonderlick’s music began circulating the Internet, and gaining recuits by word of mouth. Pieces of their music were picked up by MTV for the Sex in the ‘90s series (“Goth Sex”). Then Wonderlick tunes emerged as background music on HBO’s America Undercover documentary series, gaining exposure in one of that series’ most popular, chilling and infamous installments, “Small Town Ecstasy” (or, as some viewers call it, the “Ecstasy Dad” episode). The fact that Blumenfeld respectively produced and directed these episodes is not the point, because the self-promotion paid off for the band. And even though the project was “all in fun” and wasn’t originally intended for commercial release, it quickly became obvious that the band had enough material and enough of a cohesion among the songs to make Wonderlick a public entity, a proper band, by collecting the tracks, re-recording them, and releasing them as this year’s “debut” album.
Upon listening to Wonderlick for the first time, the previously initiated know right away that this is not another Too Much Joy album under a different name. Where TMJ were a guitar-driven force (even when covering LL Cool J’s “That’s a Lie”), Wonderlick is rhythmic and loopy, resting more on electronic gadgetry than strings and amps. If the former were punk infused power-pop, the latter is electronica informed dream pop. It’s truly a different beast.
Yet, at the same time, it’s obvious right away that you’re dealing with some familiar friends. Wonderlick opens with the acoustic guitar-driven “Donner Lake”, a song that could have slipped onto a TMJ album with little more than an extra amp. Quirk’s voice is the same old sound, gulpy and round, sounding playful even in seriousness. Lyrically, “Donner Lake” reflects the old TMJ standards as well. The song contrasts the two images of a summer resort lake and the ill-fated Donner Party expedition, one of the US’s most infamous cases of cannibalism, even while singing a wistful tune about a couple dying happily together in between crass consumerism and tragic consumption. The contrast yields the brilliant flashbulb line of “You look at fucks in swimsuits / And wonder how they’d taste / Nibble on your lover’s ear and whisper”. Yes, these are the same wryly cynical songwriters alright.
“Donner Lake” is followed by “Hearts and Stars”, an initially delicate pop tune that builds into a overlapping mix of backwards recorded guitar, samples and looping drum tracks. Lyrically, the song reflects a father’s somewhat depressing realization that he can’t save his daughter from heartbreak of and growing out of childhood innocence. It’s not too far off the TMJ mark, but the song’s sympathetic topic would have made it rest uneasily against the more self-centered nature of the old band’s material. However, when “How Small You Are” opens up, you know you’ve moved away from familiar territory. The track opens with guest vocalist Wendy Allen (Spark) contributing a lilting and beautiful chorus line of “This is how small you are”, yet includes her studio-recorded gaffes and nervous giggles. The music of the track is built on glitchy IDM keyboards, warm bass and a simple dance beat, stopping and starting from verse to verse and revealing a lot of open space. More the work of a studio construction than a band, the track shows the different direction Quirk and Blumenfeld have taken with Wonderlick.
This piecemeal studio approach is the basis of many of the remaining tracks on this album. Combining soft electronica and acoustics, this album features a bevy of guest musicians to flesh out the various tones, including different bass contributions from Steve Michener, Joe “Cannonball” Lewis and even magician Penn Jillette, drum programming from Seofon, and various contributions from Allen. This different musical approach is most obvious on “Black Box”, which sounds almost like a neo-psychedelic version of the Gorillaz. If there’s a failing in this design it’s that Quirk and Blumenfeld seem to have fallen into that all-too-contemporary trap of discovering and falling in love with the vocoder. The robotic vox fills a great deal of the tracks on the album and becomes a bit overplayed by the time you’ve reached the last song, but it definitely highlights the different direction and intention of these tunes.
In fact, what might be most striking to those familiar with Too Much Joy’s output is that these songs move so far in the direction of pop that they almost sound like they’re ready for the adult contemporary audience. If it weren’t for a distinct experimentalism in songs like “Never Let You Go” and “The Right Crazy”, Wonderlick could make the AC radio charts. This doesn’t make the album worse, by any mean, just—once again—different. Despite the presence of familiar elements, most notably the clever lyricism, it’s as if TMJ morphed into a dream pop cross between mainstream pop and They Might Be Giants.
If all of this seems like too much, too intently navel-gazing or overly indulgent, then this attitude is saved by the presence of the disc’s one cover, a sparse and acoustic version of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. If anyone could make synthesizers and guitars sound desolate and anxious, it was Ian Curtis, but stripped of those keys and Peter Hook’s bass, the song itself still carries out its intentions. With acoustic guitars picking the rhythm and brief harmonica fills playing out the harmony of the song, Quirk and Blumenfeld manage to make this post-punk classic sad in a new way. The lyrics are foregrounded and their own internal beauty and fragility becomes the focus. In this new form, the song goes from being desperate and isolated to resigned and gorgeously weary. And, really, this is the theme that carries through all of Wonderlick. In both questions of love and family, these songs express an adult perspective that is still troubled, full of pitfalls and worry, but is accepting of its fate. And yet, for the seeming morbidity, this album also displays the beauty of decay. This is most clearly expressed on “I Disappear”, whose verses trace the horrific aspects of mundane, everyday life yet contrast a chorus of “How can I tell them / That I love everyone / Every sinner / Every simpleton”, resolving in the narrator’s acknowledgement that the world doesn’t care and that his empathy is negated by his invisibility.
Whether or not Wonderlick works is difficult to say. It’s a strange amalgamation of styles, sometimes treading on the wry insight of TMJ, sometimes drifting into a pop ether. It’s certainly not a happy album, but at the same time it’s bright and inviting. As my friend Paul, a fellow devotee of TMJ, put it, “It’s not Too Much Joy. It’s not bad, but it’s not the same. It makes you miss the old Too Much Joy, but at the same time, it’s compelling. One you put it on, you can’t stop listening”. That sums it up pretty well. Whether it’s a side project or a permanent arrangement for Quirk and Blumenfeld, this disc makes you realize that the youthful exuberance of TMJ might lie in the past, and that the mature direction the band began to take late in its career might have reached fruition in the present of Wonderlick.
No doubt about it, this is an album that continues to grow on you, that reels you in a little deeper with each successive listen. Its juxtapositions of theme and music make it an interesting listen every time. Regardless of the name or style that they put their pen to, Quirk and Blumenfeld have a knack for writing insightful and clever songs, and any output from the two is worth the time. As listeners who have already become hooked on the alternately ethereal and earthy music of Wonderlick know, once you’re in, it’s hard to get out.