The Cut-Out Bin #6: Too Much Joy, Cereal Killers (1991)

Patrick Schabe

A classic album from a punk power-pop band that made the mistake of making listeners laugh.

PopMatters Music Reviews Editor

It's dangerous sailing for a rock band with a sense of humor. The instant you pick up a guitar and step up to the mic, you'd better have something serious to say or run the risk of taking a long walk off a short plank into shark-infested waters. Bad relationships, sex, drugs, politics, even fun, sure -- but beware the funny. Yes, you might score the stray (and entirely random) "novelty single" hit -- there's a grinning skull above those crossbones, after all -- but once you're pegged as "that funny band", odds are the pirate in you will soon be lost at sea.

Whether the shame of being a comedy-rock act sank the career of Too Much Joy is unclear, but if so, it wasn't entirely the band's fault. Okay, yeah, they got sued by Bozo the Clown, and were arrested for challenging the prohibition of 2 Live Crew songs in Broward County, Florida. And sure, they named their first two albums after twist-takes on Dr. Seuss books -- Green Eggs and Crack (1987) and Son of Sam I Am (1988) -- but these things could happen to any band. And if history places you in the company of the Dead Milkmen and King Missile, then you really don't have anything to be ashamed of.

Too Much Joy were in fact a great power-pop band that draped its songs in layers of downtrodden characters, winking clichés and humor that masked a cynical razorblade edge. Unfortunately, critics continually mislabeled the band as frat rock, a designation that negates the punky art-scene cool of the Milkmen or the Missile and completely overlooks the fact that underneath every party anthem TMJ ever supposedly recorded is a deep-seated irony and dark, contemplative streak that is far more clever and intelligent than any rock you'd hear on fraternity row. If anything, Too Much Joy were late-1990s pop-punk a few years too early. Though they never quite found much of an audience outside a small but rabidly dedicated circle of fans, they didn't do too poorly for a group of guys that formed in high school to play Clash covers. And in between the markedly sillier (but fabulous) Son of Sam I Am and the more mature Mutiny, TMJ produced a power-punk-pop classic, Cereal Killers.

"Susquehanna Hat Company" (a reference to the Abbott and Costello routine) opens things up with a barbed hook that still resonates despite our ambivalence to swear words. Lurching into a quick beat and a nimble riff from Jay Blumenfield's guitar, Tim Quirk dives in with opening salvo "So she said 'Fuck / This town / Nothing's ever goin' down...'", with heavy emphasis on the "fuck". A cheap ploy, perhaps, but it works, and from that point on you're drawn into the song and the album whether you like it or not. While "Susquehanna" may trade on some quick profanity and femme fatale themes, things immediately deepen with "Good Kill", a chipper jangle-pop number underscored by a rolling piano line that counterbalances the moral struggle against the death penalty. Of special interest is the guest appearance of KRS-One, who drops a quick dose of socially conscious rap on the listener that's much better then his guest spot on R.E.M.'s specious "Radio Song", which, oddly enough, was released on the same day.

From that point, Cereal Killers rattles through a series of songs that balance literate dexterity with power-pop brightness, even when tackling subdued or even depressive subjects. In 1991, Morrissey and the Cure were still the king mopesters, but "William Holden Caufield" tackles the alienation in both A Catcher in the Rye and Sunset Boulevard, challenges the notion that this isn't a normal mode of thought, and does so over Sandy Smallens's Flea-like slap bass and a shout-along chorus. "King of Beers" -- which certainly contributed to their frat associations -- is simultaneously a celebration and a condemnation of drinking away your sorrows, "Pirate" uses, well, pirate imagery to explore rebelliousness fading with age and day-to-day responsibilities, and "Nothing on My Mind", a focal-point ballad, describes being lost and aimless in life. Ha ha, right? And "Crush Story", one of those perfect power-pop love songs that define the genre, includes in its celebration of infatuation such uplifting sentiments as "I am useless, I am a mess / I am the smallest giant ever".

Back when there were still sides, that would have made up side one. Side two kicks things off with "Pride of Frankenstein", a bit of social consciousness detailing the story of the local mentally handicapped man picked on by neighborhood kids. "Sandbox" pines for the days when a sandbox and imagination were all that were necessary for happiness, while "Gramatan" tells of the exploitation of Native Americans from the uncomfortably ironic perspective of a rich white landowner talking down his nose. And if the amusingly pathetic observations of "Thanksgiving in Reno" and the sour grapes of "Long Haired Guys from England" are laugh-inducing, there's a surprising emotionalism in the unfulfilled dreams of "Goodbye, Ohio". And "Theme Song"? Well, okay, yeah, that one's for fun. To create, you must destroy.

Musically, Cereal Killers remains the band's defining moment. Though the band was formed with the barest of garage-band abilities, Blumenfield's guitar playing had fully matured into both skill and variety, Smallens's bass playing is full of energy and occasional showmanship, and Tommy Vinton's drums were dynamic and steady. But the key factor remains producer Paul Fox's efforts to coat the tracks with a slick power-pop sheen. Fresh from his work on XTC's Oranges and Lemons, Fox, who would also help craft the Sugarcubes' Stick Around for Joy and Robyn Hitchcock's Perspex Island, used the Warner Bros. budget to pack the songs with chimes, piano, and synths, drawing from each band member their crispest, cleanest performances. Rather than try to rein in Quirk's barking, off-key vocals, Fox lets them take a stronger lead here, making Blumenfield's supporting work feel more like a counterpoint than a crutch. Although the slickness of Fox's production was criticized at the time, in retrospect the full-studio treatment, as it often does, yielded the band's most enduring work.

But Cereal Killers was the pinnacle that pigeon-holed the band in the long run. Too Much Joy's follow-up, Mutiny (1992), in many ways a more mature and superior rock album, alienated fans who were drawn to the goof-ball humor. And after production many fans found too pop, the too-punk, too-late ...Finally (1996) ended TMJ's career on a far less vital note.

Due to various label tie-ups of the mid-to-late 1990s, Cereal Killers is long physically out of print, and snags over rights mean the album will probably never be reissued. However, if you want to get a taste of something you likely overlooked or even missed entirely, the band has made its whole catalog available on its website as Real Media files.

[Editor's note: You can also head over to iTunes to purchase this and other Too Much Joy records.]

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