Talk about your unsung heroes. Northern California’s Operation Ivy may get the textbook credit for shaping impressionable Berkeley/East Bay minds, but the Mr. T Experience (aka MTX and, lately, MTX “Starship”) was cranking out a premium grade of grabby pop-punk on the now-legendary Gilman Street scene (even singing about the club by name) well before Green Day started playing there. After an on-off decade of jokey pop-culture celebrations, wistful romantic complications, political satire, grand schemes and stupid ideas, singer/guitarist Dr. Frank (Portman) is still at it, older and wiser but keeping his musical scalpel sharp and wielding it with uncompromised enthusiasm. In recent years, Frank reinvented himself as a young adult novelist: his first book, 2006’s King Dork, was a solid surprise hit, and is being made into a film. His second, Andromeda Klein, came out in 2009.)
The self-released first album (recorded and mixed in a single July day) is sloppy mid-tempo punk that leaves tunefulness a goal more than an actual quality. “Danny Partridge” (a song about Danny Bonaduce’s drug bust), “I’m in Love With Paula Pierce” (a Kinksy mash note to a Pandora), a cover of the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and the toe-curling hyper-instrumental “Surfin’ Cows” are easy highlights of an entertaining but not fully baked debut.
Changing drummers and getting Kent Steedman of the Celibate Rifles in to produce, the quartet cut the faster, harder and more love-minded seventeen-song Night Shift at the Thrill Factory, adding “Skatin’ Cows” to the wordless repertoire and such sensitive reflections as “Now We Are Twenty-One,” “Dick With Ears” and “(Cause I Love You and I) Don’t Know What I’ll Do If You Don’t (Love Me Too).” Showboating his education to a manic rock’n’roll beat, Dr. Frank rams through “The History of the Concept of the Soul” (complete with footnotes) and the more simply existential “A Zillion Years” with the unselfconscious abandon of a smart guy who doesn’t care if people think he’s a geek. Besides the ode to “Gilman Street,” the seven-song Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood addresses an obvious influence (“End of the Ramones”) and indulges the Doc’s gentler side in “Song About a Girl Who Went Shopping.”
Concurrent with a label switch to the band’s long-term group home, Making Things With Light finally brings Dr. Frank’s melodic designs to fruition: from the wonderful leadoff “What Went Wrong,” producer Kevin Army (who has worked on all of the band’s day-shift albums) pushes the vocals to the fore, compressing the roaring rhythm guitars to a loud, clear supporting role. But while the music is appreciably stronger and smarter than usual, Dr. Frank has abandoned topicality, writing a little about himself (“I’m Breaking Out,” “I Don’t Get It”) and a lot about sick relationships (“She’s No Rocket Scientist,” “Parasite,” “So Long, Sucker,” “Psycho Girl”). The multilingual “Pig Latin” and the cameo portrait of “The Girl Who Still Lives at Home” are the only truly characteristic songs, although rhythm guitarist Jon von does contribute the rote-punk grievances of “Zero.”
Moving a giant step forward in instrumental complexity, Milk Milk Lemonade intertwines guitars and voices with more care, skill and diversity than the band has ever previously displayed. Departing from standard pop-punk, “Two-Minute Itch” is rootsabilly raunch; “Christine Bactine” riffs its way into hard-rock. Elsewhere, Dr. Frank invests heavily in simple, effective melodies (check the catchy surf-twisting “Last Time I Listened to You” and the Dickiesesque “I Love You but You’re Standing on My Foot”) and expresses intriguing lyrical concepts economically. “Ready Set Go” matter-of-factly describes “the normal progression/Starts with love and affection/Goes on to sick obsession.” “Make Up,” “What Do You Want?” and “See It Now” deal deftly with hard interpersonal issues. The Smiths’ “What Difference Does It Make?” both deserves and survives the rough handling it gets here.
After that high point of intricacy and stylistic ambition, MTX broke up, regrouped without co-founder Jon von (who went on to record with the masked Rip Offs) and cranked out an EP and album before dissolving again. Wisely opting not to overcompensate with too much of everything, the trio can’t duplicate Milk Milk Lemonade‘s relatively fancy arrangements on Our Bodies Our Selves (although the intricate “Personality Seminar” comes close), and instead focuses on solidly melodic songs that keep the energy and genial aggression at manageable levels. There’s a surprising pair of solo acoustic numbers, including “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend,” a comic plaint of loneliness that sounds like something John Otway might write. If the record suffers a bit for the band’s shakiness, Dr. Frank’s creative momentum and consistently improving songwriting — see “The Dustbin of History,” “More Than Toast” and “Game Over” — carry him through. In a heartwarming nod to MTX tradition, there’s even a nifty instrumental (“Bridge to Taribithia”) and a Ramoned version of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”
After further personnel shifts, MTX settled more comfortably into the six-legged format and essentially relaunched itself as a pure pop-punk outfit. Billed as MTX “Starship” for …And the Women Who Love Them, the group mounts a sizzling and streamlined three-chord rhythm guitar attack on the six touching electric songs of self-flagellation and heartbreak. (The seventh, “Now That You Are Gone,” is another one-man, one-guitar moan.) At this point in the band’s development, presentation doesn’t make that much nevermind: the material is good enough to shine without any instrumental buffing. “My Stupid Life,” “All My Promises” and the positively winsome “Tapin’ Up My Heart” highlight this winning case of loss.
Perhaps emboldened by the mersh success of East Bay rock (or at least positively irritated by it, as evidenced by the deadpan anthem “Alternative Is Here to Stay” that appears twice on the four-track EP of the same name), Dr. Frank and a half-new rhythm section fill Love Is Dead with nothing but loud, catchy and lovable singalongs, roaringly produced by Army as if he were erecting the sonic safety barrier around a particularly dangerous radioactive dumpsite. Sturdily supported by the unbreachable wall o’rock, the sardonic “Dumb Little Band,” an incisive and unglamorous why-we-rock self-portrait, admits failure but not defeat: “Our friends are busy with their own affairs becoming punk rock millionaires/They’re taping their live album at the Hollywood Bowl/We’re taping our flyers to the telephone pole.” That grimsmirk spirit infects the whole wonderful album, which mates spunk, hooks and insightful intelligence as if inventing a new musical form. Dr. Frank may not be doing any better with women than he is with the band (witness the teenaged frustration of “I’m Like Yeah, but She’s All No”), but the competing forces in his life make for one hell of an album. “I don’t want to get screwed over by just anyone — you’re the only one I want to get screwed over by.” Likewise, I’m sure.