[11 December 2006]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
From the moment it begins, you just know Trying To Never Catch Up has potential. The electronic rattling, Kraftwerk-like synthesizer pulse, and ominous, noir-ish guitar line suggest as much. Then singer Michael Kingcaid’s high-pitched, earnest voice comes in, backed by a spooky choir, and it’s clear that this is a serious album. That (excepting the guitar line) it all sounds a bit like Radiohead makes perfect sense. The question becomes, is What Made Milwaukee Famous going to follow through on it? Will this be one of those initially dense albums that gives up more hooks and textures with each listen, or will it be a fruitless exercise in pretension—or, worse, tunelessness?
Upon further review, Trying … is much more the former. It goes unnecessarily heavy on the production at times (distorted vocals are so 2001), and the song titles and lyrics can be transparently overreaching in their attempts at edginess. But it’s still deep and interesting enough musically and stylistically to qualify as one of the year’s best rock releases. Impressive for what’s basically a re-vamped, remastered version of the Austin band’s self-produced, self-released 2004 debut.
These guys made a name for themselves touring with Franz Ferdinand, and the stylistic influences are certainly there. It would be simple to call Trying … the great Stills / Strokes / Killers album you’ve been waiting for. But What Made Milwaukee Famous is confident and eclectic enough in its songwriting to go beyond those comparisons. Yes, this is one of those albums where for just about every song you can say, “Oh, that sounds just like …”. But the songs are good, and somehow it all hangs together, avoiding an “indie jukebox” effect.
That said, the kaleidoscopic, reggae-infused “Mercy Me” would have been a standout track on the Stills’ first album, and is a standout here. Kingcaid’s affected vocals work well in this case, adding to the melodrama. The chorus is fittingly crushing. For the first third of Trying ..., it’s almost as if What Made Milwaukee Famous is bent on laying it all out, showing you what can be done. “Hellodrama” brings on the loopy synth and punchy rhythm before diving headlong into the irresistible, hand-clapping chorus: “OH, CHARLENA”. That’s right, it’s the best Cars / Knack knockoff since “Stacey’s Mom”. In a mean one-two punch, it’s followed by the driving, straight-ahead, Strokes-ish power pop of “Selling Yourself Short”. With earnest vocals, scratchy guitars, and eloquent piano, the track is all your favorite sensitive-indie traits rolled into four minutes, and man, is it a rush! Interestingly, it’s the only Kingcaid-less writing credit on the album, with keyboardist Drew Patrizi taking over on words and vocals. Patrizi, who co-wrote several other tracks, needs more of the spotlight on the follow-up.
Then, just when pseudo-folk ballad “Hopelist” threatens to take the album all emo, comes the George Harrison-meets-Yes experiment “Judas”. It’s a prime example of how these guys always seem to come back from the brink of ridiculousness with smiles on their faces. Another example: The title track, which goes from Teutonic march to “Dust In The Wind” within the first minute, before exploding into the Big Anthemic Power Ballad of the album. Here, the band manages to out-Coldplay Coldplay, and out-Snow Patrol Snow Patrol while retaining emotional weight and dignity. And that’s to say nothing of the off-kilter, XTC-indebted pop, or the countless other bands and styles that you’d most likely hear if you listened to Trying … a hundred times. There’s the catch—you’ll want to listen over and over again. If anything keeps the album from superlative status, it’s Kingcaid’s lyrics, which focus almost exclusively on quasi-literary interpretations of stressed and failed relationships. After all, this band was picked up by Death Cab for Cutie’s label. Lines like, “Basically, this is an apology … So, there you left me standing / To fend for myself forever” are typical of how introspection can come across as its own kind of pose.
So, then, What Made Milwaukee Famous is not perfect. Thankfully, the band has left some room for improvement. It’s also revealed enough facets to preclude any wild turns into Springsteen worship. That, in itself, is an accomplishment.