The unreliability of humor as rock-it fuel (see?) usually dooms bands formed from Mad-magazine magma. Either not funny (Dead Milkmen), too clever (Half Man Half Biscuit) or overly abstruse (King Missile), few entrants in modern music’s laugh riot ever achieve anything near the sublime dada genius of the Bonzo Dog Band. Lucky for the genre’s proponents, the audience receptors for sophomoric humor — college sophomores — are prone to fits of pot-fueled giggling, and one cute idea can go a long way for bands that ultimately have little else on offer.
Prudently hedging middlebrow wit with credible electric pop songcraft rooted in the tuneful end of new wave energizers, Too Much Joy, four New York smartalecks originally from suburban Scarsdale, refined their goofiness over the course of two indie albums in which they cracked jokes without becoming one. The unassuming Green Eggs and Crack (assembled from four years’ worth of sessions) is a neat little record on which Tim Quirk sings wryly entertaining odes to “James Dean’s Jacket,” bogus cartography (“Map Like Mine”), romance (“Bored With Love”) and malt liquor (“No Beer”) that are each worth a smile or three.
Sharpening both instrumental skills and songwriting wit, TMJ hit their stride on Son of Sam I Am, an accomplished rock album that mixes silly history lessons (“My Past Lives,” “1964”), snotty social (un)consciousness (“Making Fun of Bums”) and a poke at fallen rock idols (“Hugo!”) with an impressive melodic rewrite of LL Cool J’s “That’s a Lie” that elevates dishonesty to an art. The 1990 CD/cassette reissue substitutes a remix of “That’s a Lie,” removes the borrowed Bozo intro to “Clowns” and adds two: a cover of Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” and a tribute to the Mekons.
Produced by Paul Fox (who did XTC’s Oranges & Lemons), Cereal Killers organizes TMJ’s maturing humor and instrumental skills into presentable catchy college rock. Whether griping goodnaturedly about the unfair seductive advantage of Britons (“Long Haired Guys from England”), recounting a sorry vacation story (“Thanksgiving in Reno”) or revisiting a favorite topic (“King of Beers,” sure to become a frat-house classic), the band’s puppy-dog personality makes Cereal Killers a lightweight smileathon. Nothing on My Mind builds an EP around the album’s anthem to apathy.
Mutiny is marginally more serious, placing as much emphasis on straightforward melodicism and sly style-mongering as chucklehead topical indulgences. Even (or, more accurately, better off) ignoring the lyrics of numbers like the opening “Parachute” (ha), “Sort of Haunted House,” “Unbeautiful” and the U2-quoting “Strong Thing,” it’s easy to enjoy the sound of a band that knows its giddy punk-era moves. Still, fandom doesn’t excuse the band’s new lyrics on the Records’ classic “Starry Eyes.”
Returning from a long absence with new bassist/album producer William Wittman replacing co-founder Sandy Smallens (who became a dot-com executive), Too Much Joy made the slightly grown-up …finally. Between them, guitarist Jay Blumenfield and drummer Tommy Vinton hammer together a loud go-cart of dense rock that challenges Quirk’s ability to keep up; strain occasionally takes the charm out of his voice (see “Different Galaxies”). As if turning up the juice cancels out the humor — and perhaps it does — the lyrics don’t press so hard and don’t seem so stupid, even when they are. Proving the band’s whimsy chops intact, though, “I’m Your Wallet” is a cute idea that works; most of the concepts aren’t so ambitiously weird. The overpowering, sometimes nearly generic music obscures the progress, but …finally benefits from an organic focus not found on the others. Needless cover: Billy Bragg’s “A New England.”
Following the end of Too Much Joy, Quirk and Blumenfield regrouped in LA in 2001 as Wonderlick. They issued a self-titled album in 2002 and Topless at the Arco Arena in 2009.