Tales From the Apple Box, #2: “Soul Rotation”

The second installment of my “Forgotten (Unjustly — or Sometimes Justly) Albums of the 90’s” series.

“There’s a little man in my head, and he’s drunk all of the time,” the poem began. “He sits there on a bench holding a monkey wrench, sometimes he beats it against my mind.” I was utterly captivated as I sat in my high school creative writing class, listening to a classmate of mine reel off this poem of such humor and surrealism. I looked down at my own stupid teen-angst poem, and was ashamed. I wish I could write like that, I thought. As it turned out, my classmate wished he could write like that, too. He cheerfully admitted later that he had lifted the poem (and several others) entirely from the lyrics of a band called the Dead Milkmen. This tactic quickly bored him, and in short order he discovered marijuana and began stealing Pink Floyd lyrics instead, but I was hooked on the Dead Milkmen.

After years of circulating self-released cassettes, Philadelphia’s Dead Milkmen were finally signed by indie label Restless Records, and put out their official debut, 1985’s Big Lizard In My Backyard. With nary a song lasting over two minutes, and titles like “Veterans Of A Fucked-Up World” and “Takin’ Retards To The Zoo,” BLIMB was the only record in the Milkmens’ catalog that could be defined as truly punk, although that label continued to be applied to them. Over the next three albums, their sound became gentler and more jangly as their musicianship improved (the squeaky-clean guitar lines of Joe Genaro were a favorite element for me), and their snotty childishness grew less aggressive and more whimsical, even adding a touch of melancholy. Fans came to expect certain elements to be included on each album, and by the time of their final release on Restless, 1990’s Metaphysical Graffiti, this had hardened into a formula: A humorous ranting monologue (or two) from lead singer Rodney Anonymous, some sophomoric scatological stuff (“Do The Brown Nose”), some retro pop-culture stuff (“I Tripped Over The Ottoman,” the best Dick Van Dyke Show tribute song you’ll ever hear), and some more “serious” stuff with a light sprinkling of social commentary (“Dollar Signs In Her Eyes”) all played impeccably with a light pop-punk touch. But by Metaphysical Graffiti, the schtick had worn thin, for the band if not their audience. For the first time, the Dead Milkmen sounded a little tired.

I’m writing this all in hindsight, of course. They were certainly fresh to me in late 1991 when I made my initial discovery of the band in creative writing class, and I had an enormous appetite for all things Milkmen. I dubbed cassettes off of my classmate’s Milkmen CD collection, and soon acquired the CDs myself. Metaphysical Graffiti  had been out for almost two years, and I was itching in anticipation. They were way past due for a new release. There was no internet I could check for a status report, and the Milkmen were considered too “underground” for Rolling Stone and too “novelty-act” for Spin to give them much attention, despite the fact that their single “Punk Rock Girl” got a modicum of MTV love in the late 80’s. (Although both Ween and They Might Be Giants — just as novelty-ish as the Milkmen — get music mag respect. What’s up with that?) Finally, the word-of-mouth grapevine of high school music nerds confirmed a new Milkmen disc was on the way, under the mysterious title Soul Kitchen, which was also the title of a worse-than-usual Doors song.

The Milkmen were not important enough to warrant inclusion on the “big board” of upcoming releases that hung above the customer service counter at my local Wherehouse. I had to ask the clerk, who had to check the store’s order forms. Yes, exactly two copies of the new Milkmen album Soul Rotation would hit the Wherehouse shelf on April 14, 1992. (Not Soul Kitchen after all. Still, not bad for a pre-internet, tin-can-with-strings information network.) The reason for the delay between albums? The Dead Milkmen had signed with a major label — the Disney-owned Hollywood Records. No more songs about retards, drinking bleach, maggot farms, or plane crash victims. They were going legit. Sensing correctly that their previous incarnation was something listeners would easily outgrow once they left their teens, the Dead Milkmen re-configured themselves into a (slightly) more mature band that could hopefully retain an audience over the long haul.

We know now that it didn’t work out. When I walked into the Wherehouse during my lunch period that April 14, I may have been the only person in northern California to buy the record. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Chili Peppers were the current rage. Everyone had moved on, except lonely die-hards like me, who had come late to the party to begin with. The Dead Milkmen released one more record with Hollywood before they were dumped, 1993’s  Not Richard But Dick, which I also dutifully bought, and one more for Restless (who welcomed them back with forgiving arms), 1995’s Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), which I not only didn’t buy, I still haven’t heard to this day. I had moved on, too, by then. The band soon called it quits, until they realized their original fans are now middle-aged people with a better income, so they reunited in 2008, and put out their first album in sixteen years, The King In Yellow, just this year. No, I haven’t heard that one, either.

So now that we’re almost two decades beyond the Milkmen’s grab for mainstream glory, how does Soul Rotation stand up as a record?

“At The Moment”  — It’s a universal phenomenon that we’re all familiar with: Music captures a moment in time. I’ve crafted several thousand words based on this truism in This Used To Be My Playground. But there’s something about coming back to a piece of music that has been unheard for a long time that makes that sense of recall even sharper. When I hear, say, “Even Flow” by Pearl Jam, it definitely reminds me of junior year, playing Ten softly on a tape deck while working on a project in the back of the history classroom. But I’ve also spun Ten fairly often in the intervening years, heard it on the radio, etc. It never really went away, so its time-capsule properties have been diluted.

But when I heard the first notes of the first track of Soul Rotation, it was as if someone had tied a rope around my waist and jerked me bodily backward through a wormhole to the spring of 1992. All sorts of sense-memories came flooding back. I played the album a ton for about a year, or year-and-a-half. Then never again once I had matured past my Milkmen fandom. It’s the same principle as smells staying fresher if you keep a tight lid on them.

The sound of the song itself is a little heavier and more textured than previous Milkmen fare, perhaps because they hired Fugazi’s producer. The fat increase in the recording budget is audible. Which makes the adenoidal, reedy vocals of Genaro — never an issue in their underground indie days — a distinct liability. Genaro’s not even their primary vocalist. Where’s the husky, Philly-accented tones of Rodney Anonymous?

“The Secret of Life” — Two tracks in, and still no Anonymous. Genaro takes the mike again for a more typical Milkmen song: a silly, catchy little trifle about UFOs. (UFOs are mentioned so often in all the subsequent songs that it is easy to call Soul Rotation a kind of concept album about aliens visiting a worn-down, beleaguered Earth. The album cover also reflects this theme.) A few bars in, and Anonymous makes his presence known — on keyboards, still vocally silent. The standard guitars-bass-drums lineup is now augmented by a few simple piano fills. I guess the big-label honchos felt that Genaro’s sweetly goofy songs would open the album better that Anonymous’ weirdly hostile goofy songs. This was the album’s lead single.

“Big Scary Place” — I guess we should just accept that Joe Genaro is the Milkmen’s new lead singer at this point. “Big Scary Place” is an adequate stab at salsa-flavored disco, complete with some blaring brass courtesy of the Uptown Horns, the semi-famous “horn section for hire” who have played with everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Dead Milkmen

“Belafonte’s Inferno” — An almost R.E.M-ish slice of jangle-pop, once again about a ride on a UFO. If there’s significance in the title, it’s lost on me. The twist in the last line of the lyrics is pretty stupid.

“The Conspiracy Song” —  At last, the return of Rodney Anonymous on lead vocals. Appropriately enough, it’s on a track that sounds the most like the Milkmen of days past — a loud ‘n’ fast two-minute rant that’s summed up neatly by the title. “They own the State/They own the Church/They pick the winners on Star Search…” Did I say Rodney Anonymous? I meant “H.P. Hovercraft”, which is the pseudonym he is credited under on this album. (The Milkmen always used fake names, with Genaro in particular adopting and discarding nom de punks. Depending on the album, Genaro has been “Joe Jack Talcum,” “Jasper Thread,” and “Butterfly Fairweather.” Bassist “Dave Blood” and drummer “Dean Clean” stuck with their names through the band’s career.)

“How It’s Gonna Be” — Both Anonymous and the Uptown Horns return on this slab of James Brown-inspired funk, detailing the life of humiliation and mediocrity in store for just about every zygote in the womb. From the first smack on the ass from the delivery room doctor until it’s time to die and go to Hell, it’s gonna be rough. There’s some nice brass flourishes, and the bass line is suitably rubbery, but it’s pretty much melody-free.

“All Around The World” — A low point. Over a martial snare beat and generic guitar strumming, Genaro laments that there are people who want to kill him “all around the world” because he “know(s) about the UFOs.”

“Silly Dreams” — The Milkmen have never been too comfortable with straight-up love songs. It seems like they started off with good intentions on this one, with its airy keyboard riff and a wistful opening couplet from our jilted narrator: “I had a dream you came back to my house/You changed your mind…” But the song quickly devolves into an extended examination of cat vomit (no, I’m not kidding.) Having done all they could on that topic for several lines (again, not kidding), “Silly Dreams” breaks down completely. Momentary silence, then we lurch back into action with a few bass notes from Blood, followed by a typically pretty guitar solo, and the final verse kicks off with Genaro’s thin voice finally straining to the breaking point — not only have his ex’s cats destroyed his carpet, but she has actually burglarized him. The “silly” part now dealt with, we return to the “dream” part, and a devastating closing couplet that hits close to home for those who’ve gone through a bad break-up: “I woke up and you were next to me/I woke up again, and you were a thousand miles away.” (One of the tiny handful of reviews that I’ve read of Soul Rotation feels that this song was the album’s clunker. It’s tune and those opening and closing lines make it my Secret Favorite.)

“Wonderfully Colored Plastic War Toys” — The heaviest song on the album, Anonymous’ anti-war/anti-commercial rant chugs along with almost-metal riffing, and a haunted-house keyboard flying in between the verses. Or should I say, repeated single verse. It’s so lyrically minimalist, it could be pro-war/pro-commerical, but the listener makes certain assumptions about material coming from indie-punk-type bands.

“God’s Kid Brother” — The most lyrically interesting track on the album, it postulates that the world is so flawed it couldn’t possibly be the work of a single Supreme Being. He must have had a clumsy younger sibling “helping” Him out. The heavenly choir and organ in the background are nice touches.

“If I Had A Gun” — The Milkmen head into some dark territory here: “When the kids are crying/After the welfare check’s been spent/Would I rob a liquor store/To get money for the rent?” Grim as the verses are, the chorus is catchy, and there’s even an attempt at harmony singing as two or three of the band wrap their vocal chords around it. For some reason (catchy chorus?), Hollywood Records decided to put this out as an EP. Until the moment I started looking for pictures to go with this blog post, I had entirely forgotten that at some point I owned this EP. No doubt I was lured into buying it because of one of its B-sides, a live version of their first big hit (relatively speaking) “Bitchin’ Camaro,” now had the mysterious sub-title “The Best Thanksgiving Ever.” I can see my eighteen-year-old self being very intrigued by this new holiday-themed titular addition. What this new “alternate” version of an old favorite ended up being all about (I’ve long since forgotten), or even what happened to my copy of the EP itself (it’s not in the apple boxes), are mysteries lost to the sands of time.

“Here Comes Mr. X” — A good portion of Restless-era Dead Milkmen material was satire, generally of the bluntest kind. The band always acknowledged that much of their fan base was under eighteen, and kids don’t pick up a lot of subtlety. A favorite target (besides hippies and Euro-dance music) was a virulent breed of racist trailer-trash, found in many areas across the country, but particularly concentrated in the western region of the Milkmen’s home state of Pennsylvania (an area known to some as “Pennsyltucky.”) The track “Stuart,” a fan favorite from 1988’s Beelzebubba, is a pretty funny Anonymous monologue done in the voice of one of these characters (climaxing with the horrified line “Do you know what the queers are doing to our soil?!?”). The character sketch “Here Comes Mr. X” explores that distasteful area once again, detailing the perils of living next door to one of these people. “He’ll swim in your pool when you’re not home/And steal your tools and your garden gnome.

“Shaft In Greenland”“The black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks” wandering alone across the barren, frozen tundra of Greenland? It’s a metaphor for checking out new areas and experiences that might make you feel nervous and out-of-place. At least I think that’s what it’s about. It’s a little muddled. The Uptown Horns make a final visit, and the ska-flavored arrangement makes for a pleasant listen on this final track.

Overall, it’s not funny enough to be of a piece with their earlier material, but far too jokey (cat vomit, remember?) and insubstantial to elevate them out of novelty-act status. Sonically though, it is a sprightly little pop record, with some hooks that will stay with you if you allow them. The beefed-up production and extra instrumental flourishes caused some to cry sell-out, but it serves to enhance the strong sense of melody (“How It’s Gonna Be” notwithstanding) that has always been a hallmark of the Dead Milkmen once you get past the oddball lyrics. Despite his lack of vocal presence, Rodney Anonymous has picked this album as his favorite, and, although it will undoubtedly return to the apple box as soon as I’m done writing this, I can see why. For all it’s flaws, I can’t help but feel a great deal of affection for Soul Rotation.

(Bassist Dave Blood is no longer with us. Click here for his story.)

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Filed under Music -- 1990s, Tales From The Apple Box

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