“Randy Newman fronting the Clash.” That’s what vocalist Tim Quirk considers his eternal quest for the sound of Too Much Joy, the band he’s been fronting since they were playing high school dances in the suburbs outside of New York City in 1980. It’s both a noble goal and an appropriate description for this merry band of smartass power-pop indie punks, who recorded a string of albums from 1987 to 1996 that combined the primal thump of the Ramones with the songwriting smarts and pop culture references of fellow college radio mainstays like They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies. For anyone pining for the return of this highly underrated band, who haven’t made an album of new music since Bill Clinton’s first presidential term: the wait is finally over.
Mistakes Were Made, a self-released album that was crowdfunded with an initial goal of $5,000 but netted nearly four times that, is the long-awaited follow-up to Too Much Joy’s 1996 album …finally, and sees the band back in the swing of things with virtually all of their initial fire intact. Joining Quirk are original members Jay Blumenfield on guitar, Sandy Smallens on bass, Tommy Vinton on drums, and producer and multi-instrumentalist William Wittman, who briefly replaced Smallens in 1994 and has now made this legendary band a quintet.
The album explodes right out of the gate with the anthemic, breakneck “Blinding Light of Love”. It puts the 21st century in sarcastic perspective (“Secret police in unmarked vans / A tidal wave engulfs Japan / Twenty likes from Facebook friends / America is great again”) before the chorus kicks in with an enormously engaging hook (“Redemption’s coming from up above / We need the blinding light of love”). Opening tracks don’t get much better than this.
The album was originally conceived to unearth and record older, previously unused Too Much Joy songs. But, at one point, “the whole quarantine thing made us want to create new music,” said Vinton in the album’s press materials. But while this – like many albums released in the last 12 months – is technically a “quarantine album”, it’s not particularly topical in that manner (although it would be a hoot to hear Quirk bitch about Zoom fatigue and anti-maskers).
It’s also a largely self-contained project, save for Joan Osborne’s guest vocals on the tuneful, acoustic guitar-driven “Uncle Watson Wants to Think”. The great news for longtime fans is that the band is generally still up to its giddy old tricks, with virtually zero signs of age affecting their power, humor, or compositional acumen. The driving, upbeat “Pong” engages in a lot of historical and cultural references (“New York City went flat broke / Brody said we need a bigger boat / Cheech and Chong went up in smoke / bye bye”) in what sounds like a gleeful ode to the egalitarianism of death.
While there’s plenty of newly composed material on Mistakes Were Made, three older songs ended up making the cut, and they live comfortably among the rest of the tracks. “Snow Day” and “Just Around the Bend”, songs that deal with the not-unfamiliar TMJ subject matter of doing your best to plow through the horror of everyday life, dating back to 1992, while “Camper of the Year”, a funky riff-fest with a typically soaring chorus, is from 1994. But as these songs retain a whiff of mid-’90s college radio, they also translate pretty seamlessly to the present. Chugging guitars and choruses stuffed with hooks will always be in high demand.
Mistakes Were Made isn’t just a comeback album, and it certainly doesn’t come off as a nostalgic cash-grab. It’s fresh, vital, rebellious power-pop for smart people. Too Much Joy’s members are well into middle age and have both the scars and chops to prove it. “Is there an ointment I can rub on my head / To keep away all these feelings of dread?” they sing in “Something to Drink About”. There may be much dread in these strange times, but Too Much Joy are an effective and much-needed salve. It’s great to have them back.