The Olympia punks broaden their horizons with classic rock and country plucking, but keep their hardcore mentality intact
As policy U-turns go, Milk Music’s debut doesn’t quite match Liberal Democrat levels of sellout. The keen-eyed will notice that ‘Cruise Your Illusion’ is being released by Fat Possum, a Mississippi indie label best known for foisting The Black Keys on the world. This runs counter to the Olympia band’s previous insistence that they’re capable of fending for themselves without the help of record industry vultures. “What’s the point of having a record label in fucking 2011?” frontman Alex Coxen once asked. Not much, but in fucking 2013 his band are dealing with more hype and minor distractions than they probably ever anticipated. They’re hardly the first DIY punk rockers to palm off the more spreadsheet-y aspects of life onto someone else, nor will they be the last. Plus, in keeping with their previous vibes, Milk Music are self-releasing ‘Cruise…’ on vinyl.
The autonomy and singularity of this album is contained in its grooves, not its ethics, and its 43 minutes of idyllic grungy clatter-punk build on the considerable groundwork created by Milk Music’s introductory 2010 EP ‘Beyond Living’. The 12 songs on ‘Cruise Your Illusion’ boom self-confidence, and stand at the midway point between their fuzz-drenched punk origins and the classic rock Milk Music now claim to draw on (the Stones and Neil Young, for example). As with ‘Beyond Living’, production is handled by one Captain Trips Ballsington, an Olympia hardcore staple. The album opener – titled, with slightly misleading aggression, ‘Caged Dogs Run Wild’ – is a plaintive country-rock instrumental less than two minutes long. Elsewhere on the album there are fade-ins (‘Illegal And Free’) and fade-outs (‘The Final Scene’), and Coxen calls someone “baby” – or more accurately “ba-beh” – on more than a couple of occasions.
Most received wisdom about ‘Beyond Living’ had it as a loving homage to a few time-honoured influences: Dinosaur Jr, Hüsker Dü, Nirvana or The Wipers, depending on the writer’s level of alt.rock geekery. Naturally, Milk Music deny everything. The opening 10 seconds of ‘Cruising With God’ might not be a wilful tribute to Hüsker Dü’s ‘Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely’, but it’s a safe bet that other people will spot the resemblance as well. In time, though, the song forges its own identity, with Coxen peeling off triumphant solos throughout.
The aforementioned ‘Illegal And Free’ (“Don’t fuck with me man/I’m illegal and free”) puts classic-rock axemanship through the same grainy filter Stephen Malkmus has utilised ever since Pavement’s ‘Brighten The Corners’. Except – whaddayouknow? – Coxen is a self-proclaimed Pavement-hater. But like Malkmus as a guitarist, Coxen offers multiple variations on ‘accessible, but in a weird way’ – shades of Television’s Tom Verlaine pervade the unfussy minimalism of ‘Crosstown Wanderer’, and on the wonderful ‘Dogchild’, the twisted country plucking, nonchalant whistles and a peyote-muncher’s sense of structure all recall Arizonian wizards the Meat Puppets. What Milk Music share with Pavement, Television and countless other free thinkers is less a sound, and more a mentality.
Punk rock may have inspired them to form a band, but their non-punk influences are in the foreground here. There are MBV-ish waves of feedback on ‘No, Nothing, My Shelter’, an ear-ringing beef-up of Springsteenian ‘heartland rock’ for the stirring ‘Runaway’, and even flickerings of krautrock on ‘I’ve Got A Wild Feeling’, where unsung drummer Joe Rutter and bassist Dave Harris create a clatter and thrum that doesn’t let up.
It’s tempting – and reasonable – at this point to compare ‘Cruise Your Illusion’ to ‘New Moon’, the new album by The Men, both bands being punk rockers looking to broaden their horizons. The highs on The Men’s album are higher than Milk Music’s, but ‘Cruise Your Illusion’ is the more cohesive statement. And 2013 has more than enough room for both of them.