We’ve all been there. You’re entranced by some wonderful song that you can’t live without, only to buy the album, hunker down to listen, and find it full of duds. Your purchase … sucks. What a weird and wondrous experience, then, to cram What Made Milwaukee Famous into the stereo and be greeted with a crayon box full of pop, each song shaded a little differently than the last and highlighted with quite arguably some of the best pop vocals around.
Named for a line in a Jerry Lee Lewis song, Austin’s WMMF formed when vocalist-guitarist Michael Kingcaid put out ads in the Austin Chronicle. Kingcaid, having survived the demise of previous bands, eschewed live performances for a year, opting for an extended period of introduction. He explains, “I had the blueprints, at least in pencil, for a long time. None of us knew each other initially. We didn’t want to jump out and play any shows when we weren’t ready to sound our best.”
After WMMF played local clubs, 2005 heralded the band’s arrival in the form of high-profile opening gigs for the Arcade Fire and a slot performing on PBS’s Austin City Limits with Franz Ferdinand. Their status has recently been upgraded from underground to upwardly indie after signing with Seattle’s Barsuk Records. The new album, Trying to Never Catch Up, offers 12 doses of ingeniously potent pop rock. Trying to Never Catch Up is aptly named, never dallying in one genre long enough to get comfortable. The first song, “Idecide,” kicks off with a death rattle, spitting synths out of “Warm Leatherette,” and spazzy, arpegiatted keyboards that signal homage to Grandaddy before there’s even time to figure out what’s playing. Somewhere in the midst of all that music, WMMF braid in two of their secret weapons: dense, astutely written lyrics and Kingcaid’s big, brilliantly colored tenor. Time signatures shift nervously while the world’s lovers fall prey to “enough sting to be stung/ enough poison to choke/ enough rope to be hung.” Asked to explain, Kingcaid offers, “I think of that one as having three or four different narrators,” and points to a theme of “being beholden to someone or something.” In other hands, “Idecide” could fall flat, a cheesy new wave brood about failed relationships. In Kingcaid’s, it’s a slick, foreboding cautionary tale.
There is much about WMMF that harkens back to a time, say, the ’80s, when gimmick wasn’t enough. The age of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Squeeze, when good melodies and witty lyrics were par for the course. While the band recalls the breezier moments in that decade as well — “Selling Yourself Short” recalls Modern English’s “Melt with You” in three notes or less — there is an obsession with craftsmanship that sets their full-length above other recent releases. “Hellodrama,” a sweet, smart-alecky tribute to a girl who won’t quite go away, mixes “Candy-O” claps with exasperated entreaties — “You’re still lingering around the set/ trying to set me off” — managing to turn dating angst into a potential dance hit.
On the quietly strummed “Hopelist” we hear “I didn’t ever want/ I never thought I’d be/ in a situation that defies contingency.” Though writing about relationships can be heady stuff, Kingcaid maintains that he isn’t looking to glorify anyone’s emotional downward spiral. “I’m sure that I’m going to write things that are going to end tragically, but I don’t ever want to leave anybody in a pit, ’cause I’ve been there.” It’s that balance of light and dark that informs the entire What Made Milwaukee Famous experience: just enough lyrical darkness to lure you in — just enough melodic color to make you stay. SFBG
WHAT MADE MILWAUKEE FAMOUS
With French Kicks and Matt and Kim
Fri/18–Sat/19, 9 p.m.
Café du Nord
2170 Market, SF