This was a hard one. I have always held tightly onto my first run-ins with the Dead Milkmen – namely, when “Punk Rock Girl” came into my 10th grade life and captured exactly how I wanted my adult life to turn out. Hell, it’s deplorably possible that I dated a girl for a month based solely on wanting to live in the anatomy of this song. The things we do for love…
The Dead Milkmen sparked my admiration of Philly’s scene (the torch still burns brightly) and the band’s snotty, carefree, jangly approach made more sense to me than the harder edges of Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. Most importantly, these guys were funny. Not just sarcastic, but actually ‘lolz’ funny. They would take down the establishment by making the punks smile, which always has more lasting power than anthems of dissent or push pit party starters.
And that’s probably what I miss the most about them, after wrapping up my third listen of Pretty Music For Pretty People.
Don’t get me wrong, Pretty Music… features excellent musicianship and is a ridiculously eclectic and tight release for a band who took 16 years off between albums and whose surviving original members are all over 50 (original bassist Dave Blood tragically committed suicide in 2004). Typically, these late-career moves are made to suck dry whatever goodwill a band established in their early years for a couple of calculated payouts. New music that comes out of these efforts is often uninspired (Adam, I’m sorry, but fuck Indie Cindy) and at best a sonic mimicry of a band’s time long passed.
Maybe it’s because the Dead Milkmen never really broke beyond college radio waves (excepting a brief rub against MTV’s elbows) that they can make such an earnest and high quality return. Pretty Music… and 2011’s The King In Yellow are both marked by a maturation that keeps the Milkmen current yet recognizable. There is no room for aural boredom on this new album and it’s clear that at the end of the near-hour, the Milkmen still have the sensibility to re-enchant a new generation of listeners. If it were a coffee drink, Pretty Music… would be a French press – smooth and bold, but handmade and gritty all the same. The sonic range is really what gets me. The Milkmen have obviously spent their years of downtime paying attention to what changes developed in the topography of their genre. Pretty Music… is an impressive testament to what keen musicians they are, as they have found a way to marry their distinctive slant to a rich and full musicality. To top it all off, Joe and Rodney somehow sing exactly the same as they did 30 years ago – their vocal performances are top notch, from first to last.
Really, the only place where wear and tear show is in the lyrics. As you make your way through these 18 tracks, you start to feel like you’re hanging out with your uncle. Sure, he’s unmarried, chill as hell, and he turned you onto the Minutemen, but he also still clings to a lot of the same arguments and perspectives you grew up listening to him share. Those car ride diatribes might have shaped who you are today, but at 27 you already know that pop music is a money-making machine (the titular opening), 9-5s suck (“I’ve Got To Get My Numbers Up”), Reaganism ruined the 80’s (“Ronald Reagan Killed The Black Dahlia”), and religion can make people stupid (“Big Words Make The Baby Jesus Cry”). By the time you get to “The Sun Turns Our Patio Into A Lifeless Hell,” which roughly feels like hearing “…and another thing!”, you get the sense that Joe and Rodney are maybe less interested in yelling with you than in yelling at you. Like your uncle, you’ll understand where they’re coming from and listen to what they have to say, but at the end of the day, these aren’t your problems.
And you can’t blame them, can you? They don’t know you grew up on South Park, that you listen to NPR and that you donated to crowd fund an immersive theatre experience that unpacks the effect of the Syrian attacks on the slippery slope to World War 3.
There are, of course, exceptions to this impression. On the odder side of the spectrum, you have tracks like “Anthropology Days,” “The Great Boston Molasses Flood,” and “Mary Ann Cotton (The Poisoner’s Song).” These strange history lessons offer breaks from the tirade and are good springboards for Wikipedia binges. Then there’s “Hipster Beard,” which is easily the album’s definitive track. It is as pure an update of the Milkmen’s sharp wit and perspective on modernity as you can find, offering a perfect critique of my own generation’s subtle alcoholism and our bastardized pursuit of Bret Easton Ellis’ devil-may-care lifestyle. It can be argued that through the trendification of shitty beer and the capitalization on our nostalgia, we have become a culturally shiftless group, happy to curate rather than create. They call us out on this one – “Another brilliant plan gets left by the roadside” – while allowing the listener to meet the song halfway, sit with it and unpack its relevance. The track also has a strange “Punk Rock Girl Pt. 2” vibe, one where Joe might revisit the now-closed Zipperhead to find Temptation, a run-of-the-mill women’s clothing store that has two dollar signs on Yelp. “Hipster Beard” could very well be his cry of anguish.
Of course, this is all coming from my current context. If Pretty Music… came out when I first heard the Milkmen, in 2002, you could bet anything that I would have considered it an education. It would have never left my Walkman. I might have become a completely different person for it – who knows? However, the 27-year old me hears the politics and anger of the lyrics as old news for the sake of rehashing old news, possibly for not feeling comfortable talking about things in the current atmosphere. Does that make this a bad album? Fuck no. This is a great album. Do a kid a favor and get them the vinyl for Christmas. In my context, though, my listens only left me wanting more of the fun and funny of Beezlebubba.