When people describe Olympia, Washington, they usually talk about it as a deep-wooded, weeded-out hippie enclave, but I’m not sure they get across how much of a deep-wooded, weeded-out hippie enclave it really is. I spent a week there with friends nearly a decade ago, and by the time I flew back to Baltimore, I felt like I’d met the whole town. Everyone I met had some kind of menial, possibly dehumanizing job — kitchen work, phone sex — but none of those jobs seemed to run their lives the way jobs ran people’s lives back east. I spent entire days there high out of my mind, staring up at the sky, and that seemed to be the way things operated there. When I was shopping at the local thrift shop/record store, the clerk’s mother called to wish her a happy Easter, and her response was this: “Mom, you’re Buddhist! How brainwashed are you?” Maybe my limited experience gave me a skewed image of the place, but Olympia, to me, seemed more Portland than Portland. It doesn’t seem like the sort of place you need to escape from. But the burnouts in the Olympia band Milk Music apparently disagree.
When Milk Music first got national attention (I’m thinking specifically about this), they came with a readymade sense of scrappy mystery — no online presence, either because of willful negation or because they just didn’t care. Then they arrived in the world, became flesh, joined the aboveground touring circuit, signed to an actual label. But Cruise Your Illusion, their first proper album, doesn’t exactly drip with professionalism. Rather than finding a proper producer or cleaning up their sound, they moved to Joshua Tree, smoked a shit-ton of weed, and recorded Cruise Your Illusion straight to tape. The album shambles and wanders and bumps into cacti. And even the cover, with its cryptic drawing and its ancient compact-disc logo, seems designed to be the sort of the thing you find in some dusty thrift-bin, not a much-anticipated debut from a hotly tipped new band. But in the collision between the band’s grimy basement-show roots and its acid-fried nomad sensibilities, we find something like magic.
As with so many other albums from the Pacific Northwest, Neil Young is clearly a spirit animal here, from the warm fuzz of the guitar tone to the borderless songwriting drift. But the band doesn’t have Crazy Horse’s rigor; and that undisciplined haze fits their spaced-out expansiveness beautifully. Songs will start out sounding destined to become 10-minute jams, but then they trail off two minutes later, before anything really flares up — and that’s fine, since the next bleary fireworks display starts just a second later.
“Don’t fuck with me, man / I’m illegal and free,” sings frontman Alex Coxen on the album’s first proper song, and there’s real longing in his voice; it’s a plea, not a warning. But he doesn’t waste much time singing. Instead, most of the track goes to a gorgeous liquid solo so languid and content that it suggests some commonality between this band and, say, Real Estate. But as blurry and unfocused as all that may be, the solo brings a melodic richness, the likes of which indie bands never, ever seem to muster. The guitarist that Milk Music axeman Charles Warring reminds me of the most, actually, isn’t Young or Greg Sage or either Kirkwood brother. It’s Slash.
And that’s the thing about Milk Music: They hit upon these great sweet spots of sweep and melody and intensity, but the gorgeous and climactic moments of their songs don’t feel predetermined. It’s almost like they had to stumble over backwards into those moments, ambling into wonder as long as everyone stops hassling them long enough for them to find it. By the end of the eight-minute closer “The Final Scene,” they’ve even stumbled into some form of mutant doo-wop, and it sounds amazing. I hate to add to the mostly-false concept of the fuckup poet, but these guys sound the best when they’re fucking up the worst. In the era of ProTools and home-studio sheen, give it up for a band who found their way into this kind of sloppy beauty, wherever they had to go to find it.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Tyler, The Creator’s self-obsessed quease-rap opus Wolf.
• Bleached’s sunny sha-la-la garage-pop debut Ride Your Heart.
• Merchandise’s richly textured album-length doom-pop EP Totale Nite.
• Vondelpark’s spaced-out and soulful debut Seabed.
• IO Echo’s glimmering shoegaze debut Ministry Of Love.
• Mudhoney’s latest scuzz-rock transmission Vanishing Point.
• Telekinesis’s focused power-pop effort Dormarion.
• Caveman’s self-titled scrubbed-up indie-pop sophomore LP.
• The Besnard Lakes’ progged-out onslaught Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO.
• The Black Angels’ garage-psych revival-move Indigo Meadow.
• Fellow Olympia band Gun Outfit’s similarly shambling Hard Coming Down.
• Empress Of’s haze-pop debut EP Systems.
• Barren Girls’ riled-up punk EP Hell Hymns.
• The all-star John Denver tribute compilation The Music Is You.
• Rilo Kiley’s rarities collection RKives.