What Made Milwaukee Famous: Trying To Never Catch Up

John Bergstrom

Re-vamped reissue of the Austin band's self-produced debut is that indie album you've been dying to get excited about. What could've been an exercise in stylistic mimicry ends up as one of the year's best rock releases. Sweet!

What Made Milwaukee Famous

Trying To Never Catch Up

Label: Barsuk
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2006-08-22
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.