For anybody coming of age in late-‘80s USA that harbored curiosity into left of center sounds, making the acquaintance of The Dead Milkmen was basically inevitable. Popular with skate rats, lovers of college-rock, scores of MTV junkies, the surly backpack/trench coat brigade and even the occasional metalhead, they were truly a boundary-crossing outfit.
In general, the Milkmen achieved this circumstance through a punk-derived disdain for seriousness that engaged but didn’t overplay the snotty. Specifically, they delivered sarcastic, sophomoric and low-brow humor, and if there’s a crowd reliably resistant to their charms it’s those with a low tolerance for the zany.
I don’t really belong to that group but also can’t deny that most humor-based music simply fails to move me. However, I’ll openly fess up to a personal Milkmen phase, in part due to the aforementioned ubiquity. And to put a finer point on it, they’re a band with a built in audience; teenagers. As a member of this demographic I was a fan, considering their thing to be refreshingly unstuffy and flippant. Time passed and then one day, the appeal had essentially abated.
So I’m far from any kind of expert on their oeuvre, but the record I recall with some fondness is ‘87’s Bucky Fellini; possessing currents of social commentary amongst the zingers and irreverence, it also flaunted a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Rocket Ship,” the existence of said tune providing a nice doorway into their guitarist/co-vocalist’s less celebrated endeavors.
Back in ‘84 a stream of cassettes began surfacing from the man born Joseph Genaro, a few under the pseudonyms Butterfly Fairweather, Butterfly Joe and Jasper Thread but most carrying the familiar handle Joe Jack Talcum. In ‘04 selections from those releases were issued by Valiant Death Records on the CD Home Recordings 1984-1987; in ‘11 Happy Happy Birthday To Me culled from that disc and put out an LP with additional tracks procured from the first seven years.
Home Recordings 1984-1990 is a welcome document essaying Talcum as an early practitioner of Lo-fi, an aesthetic that didn’t bloom into a full-fledged movement until the following decade. This makes him a legit contemporary of Johnston, a connection HHBTM hasn’t neglected in the promotion of his material. But while fitful stylistic similarities exist, the comparison shouldn’t be overstated.
Talcum is a talented writer, and the examples gathered on 1984-1990 do include a handful of gems, but he also doesn’t reach Johnston’s mastery of pop craft. What they do share, along with left-field but endearing vocal styles, is a bare-bones recording approach, a potential liability transformed into a decided advantage, though even at an early stage Talcum plainly desired broadening the one human being and a tape deck paradigm. With this said 1984-1990’s modest success idles at the intersection of mood and technique.
In this case the decision to accentuate but not abandon the chronological angle of the CD is a smart one, for it allows easy insight into Talcum’s growth; laughs are rare though not completely absent across both LPs, but Home Recordings 1993-1999 reveals compositional prospering and maturation of the lo-fi strategy, Talcum successfully employing a 4-track (captured in an illustration on the sleeve) as he fine-tunes his artistic personality.
This is immediately apparent on “One False Move,” a down-tempo opener built upon strummed acoustic and vocals that fits quite snuggly into the year of its original issue, 1993. Again, the audio clarity isn’t particularly muddy or hissy; in fact, it reminds my ear of (and slightly foresees) the more folky moments on Beck’sMellow Gold, and it’s not until the cheapo keyboard comes in toward the close that the ultimate conventionality of the songwriting is fully revealed. Finessed into a smoother arrangement, “One False Move” could’ve been a candidate for ‘90s Alt-radio.
“Talk” is also largely acoustic driven, though layered and accented with amplification through multi-tracking. Still mildly stripped-down and folkish, the result is a more pronounced and relaxed pop sensibility that infrequently and pleasingly resurfaces throughout the record to underscore Talcum’s increased confidence. The sheer simplicity of its chorus is worthy of note.
It’s the arrival of “Madonna’s Weep” that first exudes the fragile air and emotional arc of music one might’ve purchased from a mid-‘90s K Records mail-order catalog. As the song unwinds hiss is palpable but stays securely in the background. The nature of the fidelity becomes a deeper component in the dirge-like strains of the keyboard-situated (piano and organ) and bent guitar-spiked “Go.”
Returning approximately to the K corral and unraveling so slowly it positively aches is “Call Me a Fool,” and its most interesting aspect is an eruption of effects not easily comparable to Talcum’s ‘90s peers, though it does hit me a little bit like a more bluntly aggressive predecessor to the musique concrète underbelly found in Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Communist Daughter.”
From there 1993-1999 shifts into a milieu recognizably rock as Talcum receives the assistance of a drummer, but those anticipating a drive through the Milkmen’s route will end up hanging in a different neighborhood. Indeed, even as it opens with a joke, the title of the simultaneously shambling and riff-laden “Sense of Humor” is a red herring, and “Sweet and Sour” is a full blown instrumental.
Both numbers attain the solid but aren’t exceptional; if widening its range they derail the album’s focused momentum a bit. “Another Time” gets back into solo mode, though as Talcum goes it alone and stretches beyond five minutes (and with a liberal dose of keyboard residue in its midsection) he doesn’t necessarily radiate the vibe of a loner.
And while maintaining a comfortable middle ground in terms of sound quality, the title of “The Sun Shines out of My Asshole” does highlight the tendency of home recording artists to eschew self-editing. It’s not bad, but the impact is lesser than most of what precedes it on 1993-1999, and deceptive; the song’s not especially snide as it lands between twee and quirk.
“Cup of Tea,” which finds scrappy unpolished drumming reentering its disheveled manner, hints at the ramshackle ambiance of certain ‘80s UK DIY outfits, and “Be My Property” stands as an oddball punk ditty wielding an attack remaining distinct from the Milkmen. “Forever Expanding Dream” then scales and slows things down as threads of experimentation enhance the atmosphere, and “I’m Not Here” inaugurates a reentry to a band setting; it’s rather melodic and unperturbed with an eccentric finale.
“Another Disgusting Pop Punk Song” ends the record on a surprising note of satire, the jab at the debasement of a genre further dating the LP’s environs without being tangibly injurious to the whole. Home Recordings 1993-1999 is a likeably industrious affair, but while stronger than the prior volume it ultimately falls short of amazing. The 14 cuts will be of interest to adventurous partisans of Talcum’s main gig and should stir the attention of listeners into outsider/non-pro album construction.