If you’re ever driving along the highway outside Marquette, Michigan, you might see a 50-foot metal dinosaur holding a fishing pole. That dinosaur marks the entrance of a very strange place called Lakenenland. A construction worker named Tom Lakenen bought the plot of land that became Lakenenland in 2003, when his local township told him that he couldn’t display his scrap-metal sculptures in his front yard. Those sculptures are wild — monsters, skeletons, wolves, reapers, alligators, all done up in deeply personal outsider-art style. Some of the sculptures involve 9/11; others seem to be about the voices in Lakenen’s head. When I was there about a decade ago, there was a sign that said Lakenen had never been to a real sculpture park but that he imagined this is how one might look. In Marquette, Lakenenland is considered a family-friendly tourist attraction. It’s got a TripAdvisor page and everything.
Isolation does funny things to people, and Marquette is an isolated place. It’s way up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and it’s beautiful — nestled among mountains and right next to Lake Superior, which stretches out like glassy infinity. But it’s miserably cold for most of the year, and when things do warm up, the tourists arrive. Marquette isn’t close to any big cities. My wife’s late grandfather used to run a hotel in Marquette, and I’ve been out there a few times for family vacations. I remember the drive from Chicago taking a very, very long time. There are multiple colleges there, but it’s not the kind of place that’s built to support a thriving indie rock scene. A touring band would be nuts to plot a Marquette stop. Sometimes, though, that isolation can be a godsend. Sometimes, it can lead to something like Liquid Mike.
The Mike of Liquid Mike is Mike Maple, a Marquette resident who works as a mailman and who cranks out raggedly infectious power-pop bangers at an insane rate. For the past three years, Maple and his bandmates have been hunkered down in Marquette, dropping tightly-wound dirtbag anthems on Bandcamp. Eventually, the world noticed. In the case, “the world” is Keegan Bradford, Camp Trash member and Stereogum contributor. Bradford posted about Liquid Mike on Twitter last April, and the rest of the world started to take notice. At the time, Liquid Mike had just released self-titled, their fourth album in two years. Despite all the bullshit, social media can still sometimes lead to that kind of glorious discovery — a brilliant band, working in total obscurity, who’s already got a full catalog that’s just waiting to be found. Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot, Liquid Mike’s latest, is their fifth album, but it’s the first one that has a readymade audience beyond their friend group. They’re still a long ways away from fortune and fame, but people have been waiting for this one. Those people will not be let down.
Liquid Mike’s punchy, grizzled riffage sounds instantly familiar, and it’s hard to describe their sound without pulling up a laundry list of comparisons: Guided By Voices, Weezer, Dinosaur Jr., Foo Fighters, Jawbreaker, Japandroids, Joyce Manor, Militarie Gun. You get it. Liquid Mike sound like a hook-addicted ’90s alt-rock bands, or they sound like one of those bands who sound like hook-addicted ’90s alt-rock bands. The members of Liquid Mike have learned from all those bands. In many cases, they grew up on those bands. They’ve internalized those bands’ sounds. They know how a pummeling melodic riff or a zippy synth-line or a singalong chorus can make you feel, and there’s a freewheeling excitement to their songwriting. But you don’t just hear the rush of escape in Liquid Mike’s music. You also hear the stuff that they’re trying to escape.
“Drinking And Driving,” the first song from Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot, is about “the best you can get when you’re living in a summer town.” To hear Mike Maple tell it, that means seeing your neighbors get evicted and their houses turned into Airbnbs that’ll stand vacant for three quarters of the year. The next song, first single “K2,” opens like this: “Summertime 2009, we were playing the choking game/ There was nothing else to do, it was something.” That’s the beginning of a tragic story, a cautionary tale. In this case, though, it only leads to a Coldplay joke: “You fell down when you passed out/ A rush of blood straight to the head/ Pissed your pants, and they were all yellow.”
That’s good writing! That’s like an old Hold Steady song, if Craig Finn was one of the down-and-out characters and not just the narrator. Like those Hold Steady records, Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot is a kind of concept album about living in the kind of place where people are left to fend for themselves. Also like those Hold Steady records, it’s full of little details particular to that place. The title is a reference to another off-kilter local landmark. The songs are populated by drug-dealing boyfriends, recovering-addict townies, and people who know their remains will never be mounted in museum displays. Sometimes, Mike Maple is circumspect: “Given what you know, the American Dream is a Michigan hoax/ You can see it from your window/ Rust on the frame from the salt on the road.” Sometimes, he seems to draw defiant energy from squalor. The chorus of “USPS” turns anhedonia into a fist-up scream-along: “Hey, kid! You better not run away! You always go from nowhere to nowhere!”
Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot is longer and more expansive than past Liquid Mike records, but that’s not saying much. It still blasts through 13 songs in less than half an hour, and its hooks still sound rough and gnarled, like they’ve been carved out of oak. Recording on their own, Liquid Mike have landed on a sound that’s lo-fi and blown-out but still compulsively listenable. They’ve got great instincts for both songwriting and production; tricks as small as the buried-in-the-mix shakers on “Drinking And Driving” or the harmonica on “American Caveman” give the tracks the kind of subliminal ear-candy boost that you might not even consciously notice until the 10th or 20th listen. But those tricks are secondary. The stuff that stands out the most is the raw, messy, melodic heart of this record. If Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot catches you on the right day, Liquid Mike might sound like they’re singing about you.
Talking to Stereogum last year, Mike Maple lamented the lack of viable venues in Marquette: “It’s really hard to find spots that aren’t house shows that get shut down half the time or bars that don’t really tolerate loud music.” I wonder what the future holds for Liquid Mike. There’s so much spark and craft and energy on Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot. It’s a record that demands to be heard, a calling card from a band that seems destined for bigger things. Maybe they’ll move away and find those bigger things elsewhere. Or maybe they’ll stay in Marquette and someone will make a giant scrap-metal sculpture of them.
Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot is out 2/2.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Brittany Howard ‘s What Now
• J. Robbins’ Basilisk
• J Mascis’ What Do We Do Now
• Runnner’s Starsdust
• Kirin J Callinan’s If I Could Sing
• Scrim’s Lonely Boy
• Vijay Iyer Trio’s Compassion
• Ghetts’ On Purpose, With Purpose
• The Last Dinner Party’s Prelude To Ecstasy
• Gabby Barrett’s Chapter & Verse
• Deap Vally’s SISTRIONIX 2.0
• KMFDM’s Let Go
• Slope’s Freak Dreams
• The Paranoid Style’s The Interrogator
• Vera Sola’s Peacemaker
• Den Der Hale’s Pastoral Light
• We Are Scorpio’s self-titled LP
• Plantoid’s Terrapath
• Ronnie Stone’s Ride Again
• L Devine’s Digital Heartifacts
• Maria W Horn’s Panoptikon
• Topographies’ Interior Spring
• Lost Souls Of Saturn’s Reality
• MORGXN’s BEACON
• Robby Krieger And The Soul Savages’ self-titled LP
• Mean Mistreater’s Razor Wire
• Lee “Scratch” Perry’s King Perry
• Vegas DeMilo’s Black Sheep Lodge
• Anika Pyle’s Four Corners EP
• Ghoul’s Noxious Concoctions EP
• Flight Mode’s Tøyen, ‘13 EP
• Smerz’s ALLINA EP
• Sunareht’s Youth EP
• Meanstreak’s Blood Moon EP
• Intercourse’s Egyptian Democracy EP