[30 May 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Milk and Honey Band are aptly named, I’ll give them that. They are unabashedly sweet and warm on Secret Life of the Milk and Honey Band. The sliding riff over acoustic guitar that opens the album on “Way Too Long” sounds like a good omen, like you’re in for an album of solid guitar-pop.
Unfortunately, the execution isn’t there more often than not. Most of the songs don’t know when to push themselves and when to lay off. “Way Too Long” establishes that sun-drenched sound, and then rests on saccharine lyrics (“Feel so fine / Just called to say / Welcome to this beautiful day”) and a chorus that is sung one too many times. The strings on “Message” detract from some decent countrified guitar work. “Four Leaf Clover” finds the Milk and Honey Band at their most ambitious, as a horn section comes in at the end of the song for a triumphant closing. And it almost works. For a while, the horns’ notes resound and pick the song up, but they stick around for too long and eventually switch to a more syncopated sound. By the end of the song, the horns sound like they’re announcing royalty at a fancy dinner, instead of accompanying a pop song.
For much of the record, the band sounds a little like the Jayhawks, if Louris and company has listened to a lot more Beach Boys. And the influences come across a little too much on the record. Secret Life of… sounds like a band that likes a lot of other bands, but isn’t sure what to make of themselves. On “Satellite”, singer Robert White sings “There is nothing that is greater than love”, and while simplicity in music should sometimes be celebrated, White doesn’t take this idea anywhere it hasn’t been in Western music since the Magna Carta was signed. Lyrically, White never seems to want to challenge himself or the listener. As a result, the songs are full of vague ideas and images that, in the end, a listener will have a hard time discerning any real meaning from.
The album itself doesn’t seem to know where its going either, and rather than quit while its ahead, it pushed on for fifteen songs and clocks in at nearly an hour. This may not seem like that long, especially next to Sufjan’s work or the Fiery Furnaces, but when you hear yet another sliding riff over acoustic guitar, the magic of that opening one is lost, and you start to wonder why they keep going. The Milk and Honey Band, by about halfway through the album, sound aimless. They retread ideas over and over again, and struggle to find a balance between simplicity and ambition. Often they are unable to find a balance between the two and the album sounds either uneven or uninspired. And it’s too bad, because they are clearly talented musicians. They can put together a song the way they’ve heard others do it. But really, in the end, I keep asking myself why they made Secret Life of…, and I can’t come up with an answer. Some bands sound like they just really wanted to be in a band. And while that can be fun and spirited, it usually makes for sweet music full of empty calories.