There are few things staler than an old joke, and Philadelphia’s Dead Milkmen were barely funny when they began their decade-long adventure into the realm of willful punk-rock stupidity. A homegrown insult machine with a snotty attitude and a grasp of modern society’s cultural monstrosities, the band brought their own whoopie cushion to the party, using a lightweight foundation of plain, unfancy punkrock music, the Milkmen didn’t focus on individual victims so much as unleash their bratty irreverence in scattershot volleys. Fortunately, their intelligence grew with age; rather than sink deeper into the cesspool of sophomoric silliness, the quartet eventually developed a mature, thoughtful approach to their mission. So they called it a day.
Starting off with the reckless insults and putdowns on Big Lizard in My Back Yard (which contains the career-making “Bitchin Camaro,” a catchy cocktail-jazz/hardcore hybrid that tastelessly makes light of AIDS while poking fun at teenagers, the Doors and sports car owners), the group proceeded through the mildly satirical fantasies of Eat Your Paisley!, a record which makes no great effort to be funny or offensive, yet manages to convey a sense of satire by painting bizarre B-movie tales like “Moron,” “Beach Party Vietnam” and “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies.” The group’s wacky observations of stereotypes and artifacts are vague but astute; the music is expendable but never less than presentable. The relatively expansive Bucky Fellini — with guest musicians, improved songwriting and such dementedly parodic cultural concepts as “Nitro Burning Funny Cars,” “Going to Graceland,” “(Theme from) Blood Orgy of the Atomic Fern” — coughed up the clever “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything),” a song subsequently expanded into an EP with three mixes of that vindictively funny number (including the all-percussion “Boner Beats”), the previously unreleased “Ask Me to Dance” and tracks that were CD bonuses on the first two albums.
The Milkmen’s skimpy charms run very thin on Beelzebubba, an album with precisely three assets: a great title, amusing artwork and the catchy but dumb “Punk Rock Girl.” Metaphysical Graffiti likewise manages some cute song titles (“If You Love Somebody, Set Them on Fire,” “In Praise of Sha Na Na” and “I Tripped Over the Ottoman,” an ode to Dick Van Dyke), but the tunes themselves are thoroughly lame. Gibby Haynes makes a guest appearance on “Anderson, Walkman, Buttholes and How!” The disco-versed “Smokin’ Banana Peels” was remixed by Don and David Was (four separate ways!) as the centerpiece of an EP that contains five flimsy-to-awful (none more so than “The Puking Song”) non-LP items.
Moving to a bigger label for a two-album sojourn, the Milkmen — artless singer Rodney Anonymous (né Klingerman), drummer Dean Clean (Sabatino), bassist Dave Blood (Schulthise, who committed suicide at the age of 47 in March 2004) and guitarist Joe Jack Talcum (Genaro) — found a suitable studio collaborator in producer Ted Nicely and made the first genuinely good album of their career, Soul Rotation. The gentleness of the band’s adult humor is well-served by equally unprepossessing eclectic pop-rock that makes varied use of the Uptown Horns and Rodney’s keyboard sideline. Between the furious punk goof of “The Conspiracy Song,” the funky “How It’s Gonna Be,” the new wavy rock decimation of “Wonderfully Colored Plastic War Toys” and the ska beat of “Shaft in Greenland,” the Milkmen finally locate a comfortable balance of provocative ideas and winning presentation.
The simplified Not Richard, but Dick favors down-the-hatch indie-rock, which suits the Milkmen fine but doesn’t make for as entertaining an experience. The spoken “I Dream of Jesus” mounts a drastic cinematic fable in evident tribute to King Missile, but religion is dwarfed by psychiatry as the album’s lyrical obsession. “Leggo My Ego,” “Not Crazy” and “Nobody Falls Like” all shoot from the mind, while “The Woman Who Was Also a Mongoose” at least pays titular homage to Dr. Oliver Sacks. A little bit They Might Be Giants (“The Infant of Prague Customized My Van,” the other theological essay here), a little bit Ween (“Let’s Get the Baby High”), the album is inoffensive but underwhelming.
Evidently as a result of contractual obligations, songs from the two preceding albums were cut out of Chaos Rules, a slapdash greatest-hits concert record inconsistently documenting a pair of shows — two years apart — at Philadelphia’s Trocadero Club. Other than scattered topical references (“Laundromat Song” mentions John S. Hall, “Right Wing Pigeons” slags off Bill Clinton and the introduction to “Bitchin’ Camaro” throws down the gauntlet to a local anti-abortion crusader), most of the renditions are surprisingly worse than the originals.
Their creative stamina waning, the Milkmen ended it all with Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), a Dick-like but slack sleepwalk proudly (relievedly?) stickered as “Their Final Studio LP!” Recalling such cutting audience attacks as “You’ll Dance to Anything,” Rodney comes to life on “The Blues Song,” a sharp cultural critique masquerading as a cloddish 12-bar shuffle: “The blues isn’t an art form, a type of music, it’s a product … a way for white kids to feel that they understand the feelings of black people without ever actually having to meet any.” He also revisits amelodic prose to amusing effect in the eavesdropping “Peter Bazooka” and the multiple-personality “Don’t Deny Your Inner Child,” but the other dozen songs are flat, lazy and instantly forgotten. Typical of the uninspired banality, the final track, “Big Deal,” opens with “Life sucks then you die / And your soul gets sucked into the sky.” Meanwhile, your records go to the cutout bins.