Milk Maid's catchy, '60s-inspired pop songs are completely undermined by the fact that it sounds like the album was recorded in a tin shack.
Yucca, Milk Maid's debut album, opens with 13 seconds of guitar that sounds like the band is performing a badly-recorded cover of Nirvana's "Sliver". They aren't, of course, but the guitar rhythm and chords of "Such Fun" are exactly the same as the Nirvana song from almost 20 years ago. The song's chorus is different, though, as the band shows an affinity for Beach Boys-style '60s pop. Still, as a person in his mid-30s, it's odd to think that a band like Nirvana is now essentially classic rock and that the similarity of the Milk Maid song may be entirely unintentional. I suppose this kind of thing happens to all music fans as we get older.
Anyway, Milk Maid. Martin Cohen, formerly of Nine Black Alps, did everything on the album himself, but it basically sounds like a punk-minded power trio with a love of early '60s pop music. Second song "Can't You See" is a plaintive surf-ballad with gently strummed distorted rhythm guitar and a slightly psychedelic lead guitar part swirling around in the background. The only percussion in the song is a faint tambourine. Most of the album is like this. There are catchy, old-fashioned melodies in almost every song, but Cohen likes to cut his pop music through with heavy distortion. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like Kurt Cobain's modus operandi as well, so maybe "Such Fun's" Nirvana resemblance is intentional after all.
Cohen played bass for Nine Black Alps, but he proves to be an adept guitar player here, using several distinct sounds and often effectively playing two or three different parts. Those parts give his simple songs an extra layer of depth and makes them more effective. Most interesting is when he uses the guitar to undercut his songs. "Not Me" starts off a lot like the other pop songs on the album, but Cohen interrupts it smack dab in the middle of the song with 40 seconds of completely distorted, atonal guitar noise. "Back of Your Knees" is similarly undercut, with feedback squalling around in the background throughout the track.
Other songs on the album, like "Dead Wrong", with its irresistible melody and catchy three-chord guitars, would be a pure delight but for one thing: Yucca sounds terrible. The whole album was recorded in Cohen's Manchester flat, but it sounds like it was recorded in a small tin shack. The sound seems to reverberate all over the place, wildly distorting even the prettiest songs under an onslaught of noise. Cohen's vocals, already mixed low, are basically indecipherable on all but the quietest tracks. The press materials praise Cohen's "viscerally dark lyrics", but good luck figuring any of them out without a lyric sheet in hand. If Mild Maid was from California it would probably be called a "low-fi" band, but since Cohen is from England, Fat Cat Records touts the album's "raw spontaneity" and Cohen's "freedom [to do] things his way".
Regardless of how they describe it, it's all code for "this sounds absolutely awful". There's really no excuse for something that sounds this bad in 2011 except as an aesthetic choice. Get a friend with a laptop and a good microphone and a home recording can sound almost indecipherable from a studio album. And as an aesthetic choice, using the low-fi approach on catchy pop like this just undermines the songs, and not in an interesting way. Instead of adding a layer of intrigue, like some of Cohen's guitar choices, it just makes the whole production sound awful. It's like he couldn't be bothered to make it sound halfway decent. Maybe someone at Fat Cat decided that instead of telling Cohen to go into a studio a make it sound good, they could just release his crappy demos and write sparkling press releases comparing Milk Maid to Guided By Voices. Who knows? Maybe that will work for some listeners, but it didn't for me.