What Made Milwaukee Famous
Trying to Never Catch Up
orbes.com's recent ranking of America's "drunkest cities" held a brief, modest fascination for the Stylus staff, many of whom disagreed with the details of the site's ranking system and scoffed at the conspicuous absence of San Francisco. Nevertheless, Forbes' central thesis—that Milwaukee stands as the alcohol capital of America—went uncontested. What Made Milwaukee Famous has nothing to do with any of this past their Schlitz-aping name, but the analogy is instructive. Barsuk's latest darlings are from Austin, which ranked a decent but inessential fifth in Forbes' poll, and that's exactly what What Made Milwaukee Famous is: decent, hardworking, spotted with rare evenings of inspired debauchery or impressive piles of crumpled cans, but anyone with a yen for oblivion has got Boston, Columbus, and the Twin Cities to hit up first.
Trying to Never Catch Up is constructed mostly of chugging guitars and hi-hats, keyboardist Drew Patrizi adding dollops of synth as per the Killers' handy playbook. Genuine hooks are oddly scarce; songs like "Idecide" and "Sweet Lady," clearly designed to stick like taffy, are so melodically nebulous the band themselves seem to forget what they're playing after a few measures. Part of the problem is Michael Kingcaid's lyrics: trying for the punctuated, strangely complete sentences of a Will Sheff or John Roderick, Kingcaid muddies his libretto with qualifiers and weasel-words chosen to fill measures ("Consider this courtesy, if not somewhat evasive underneath," goes "The Jeopardy of Contentment"), and the avalanche of useless verbiage goes unredeemed by any of the good habits practiced by Kingcaid's colleagues in loquaciousness—Colin Meloy's smartass thesaurus-rhymes, for instance, or Eleanor Friedberger's sheer love of saying things. Kingcaid squeezes his words over synth lines like spray cheese, and some malevolent studio presence drenches his voice in the scratchy, yowly filter you hear on a lot of rock records these days despite the fact that it invariably suggests constipation.
WMMF come off best on those tracks least augmented by fuzz and beeps—the title track, climactic use of that damn filter aside, deserves to be on the radio as much as any Coldplay; and "Bldg. a Boat from the Boards in Your Eye" bops amicably enough for the six minutes granted it as album closer. And "Hellodrama," possibly the most incongruous song I've heard this year, abandons every one of the album's ugly qualities and ends up kind of awesome: a filterless Kingcaid belts absurdly anguished lyrics—"It's not so much the way you hurt me / It's more like the way you make me wanna hurt myself"—made wryly funny in light of the title, and the band not only make it through three minutes without forgetting the tune but bulk it up with a staccato, handclap-dusted chorus that approaches the sublime. The song deserves a better album so completely that its writers' failure to provide one borders on the tragic, and I even confess a kind of guilt at being unable to stand anything else here—you'd think I could manage more than one song. But then I never was a big drinker.