[20 May 2008]
What Made Milwaukee Famous’ 2004 debut, Trying to Never Catch Up, was a snapshot of a band that knew its way around a tune, but hadn’t found its own sound yet. It felt more like a mix CD of outtakes from the Nineties’ best alt-rock radio denizens (Semisonic, Weezer, Radiohead, et cetera) than an actual album. No one expects every band to reinvent the wheel on their first go-round, though. With a clutch of catchy songs and a few lucky breaks (most notably being the first unsigned band to play PBS’ legendary “Austin City Limits” program), this Austin quintet built up enough buzz to get the attention of Barsuk Records, who signed them and re-released the album in 2006. It doesn’t surprise me that the label took so kindly to WMMF: the band’s a quintessential addition to a roster full of bands that know their way around a tune, but veer dangerously close to blandness.
Unfortunately, just as the band’s name compelled numerous critics to pepper their reviews of Trying to Never Catch Up with obvious geography jokes, its mediocre follow-up What Doesn’t Kill Us will compel those same smart-asses to remark that whatever forces the album title refers to have NOT made the band stronger. The album may seem more cohesive than its predecessor, but that’s mainly due to sequencing. Like most albums of its ilk, it’s got a grandiose opening track (“Blood, Sweat and Fears”), a mid-section that alternates evenly between ballads (“Cheap Wine,” “Self-Destruct”) and rockers (“The Right Place,” “To Each His Own”), and a quiet, acoustic closing track (“The Other Side”). WMMF still struggles to transcend its influences, though: the sprightly tempo and horn interjections on “Sultan” are directly cribbed from Spoon’s “The Underdog”; “The Right Place” sounds like a slightly happier version of the Foo Fighters; the dissonant shrieking that ends “Resistance St.” was utilized to better effect by Radiohead on “The National Anthem.”
More frustrating than the band’s lack of originality is the self-righteousness of front man Michael Kingcaid’s lyrics. Most of the songs on What Doesn’t Kill Us are directed at an unnamed “you” who, if Kingcaid is to believed, seriously needs to get his or her shit together. Depending on the song, this person is cowardly (“Your only guarantee is your fear of the unknown”), naïve (“Weren’t you told how brutal life can be?”), sadistic (“You know you don’t think I’m rolling over / Just because you like to keep your standards low”) or masochistic (“I’m tired of you crawling right back for more”). On the album’s last three songs, Kingcaid’s focus shifts from “you” to the world, but his political statements are just as smug as his personal attacks. If Kingcaid didn’t have such a beautiful voice—one that splits the difference between Jeff Buckley’s tremor and Britt Daniel’s rasp—listening to this album would feel like being berated by a schoolmarm.
Even the band’s knack for catchy choruses has dissipated: only a third of the songs on What Doesn’t Kill Us manage to be as memorable as “Hellodrama”, which remains my personal favorite from their debut album. What Made Milwaukee Famous has already proven itself talented enough to make a good record…but if this sophomore slump is anything to go by, the band’s just too derivative and didactic to make a GREAT one.