Issue #154: Soul Rotation by The Dead Milkmen
March 25, 2019
Released On April 14, 1992
Released By Hollywood Records
I had a good friend in my youth that I exchanged a lot of music with, in the form of Stuff tapes. They weren’t true mixes, just a bunch of songs off a few albums we’d recently acquired. Whatever we liked best that we also thought the other person would appreciate. One of these tapes that he made for me included several songs off Soul Rotation, which was the (at that time) most recent release by Philadelphia’s The Dead Milkmen. I still remember what songs he included, and in what order, cause that Stuff tape spent a lot of time in my car/Walkman.
Of course, this was a band I already knew and loved; Beelzebubba and Metaphysical Graffiti were two of the first CDs I bought the year I saved all of my Christmas and birthday money to buy myself an actual stereo (and I had to order them from a catalogue in the one record store within 100 miles of me), but Soul Rotation quickly became my favourite. I borrowed the CD from my friend and dubbed the whole thing for myself and listened to that tape for years until it fell apart. My friend was the only person I’d ever known who had owned it, and we’d lost touch after he graduated and I moved (this was long before the days of social media made finding old friends so easy, of course), so I tried to buy my own copy. I hit a wall. Checked every record shop I knew, and never found a single copy (even used), and when I finally asked a clerk at Mad Platter (wtf), exactly, was the deal with this being so hard to find, she told me it was out of print. Fuuuuuuuuck.
So I fired off an email from my Hotmail account to the official Dead Milkmen contact address explaining my sad tale of woe and asking if they had any spare copies laying around they might be willing to part with. In a relatively short period of time, I got a reply from Dean saying he was actually sad about it being out of print, as well, since it had always been one of his favourites, and that he sometimes saw copies pop up on eBay. Whyyyyyy was this so difficult?!? I did not have an eBay account and honestly wasn’t even really sure exactly what it was, and was really distrustful of shopping online, in general. I complained loudly to my dad, who (it turned out) had recently discovered eBay and interrupted my story to spend an hour describing his latest deals and then showing me everything he had scored in auctions.
Then I started a new job, and kind of forgot about buying new (or old and out of print) music for a while. My husband was in the middle of a workman’s comp battle after being injured at work, and mine was our only income, and I just didn’t have the money to be spending on music at all, you know? That year, I volunteered to work on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because I really wanted that double-time-and-a-half for both shifts. I dropped my husband and our son (then an only child) off at my dad’s before work on Christmas Eve, then spent the night there so no one would have to spend Christmas Day alone. We opened presents on Christmas morning, and my last present was from my dad. A pristine (used) copy of Soul Rotation. He had been listening and had set an eBay alert, waiting for months for a copy to show up for sale so he could surprise me.
I cried. He knew I would. I popped it into the CD player in my truck as drove to work, sad about not getting to spend the holiday with my family, but my spirits were bolstered immediately upon hearing the opening notes of “At The Moment.” I sang along loudly. To that song and every other. There was just enough traffic on the way in to allow me to listen to the entire album, and I grinned while singing the entire thing. This album still makes me grin all the way through, and I’m so glad it’s at least available on streaming services now so that others can discover it anew.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Mordant punk icons excelling in the crowded underground of their time and the critical retrospectives of the present.
I know exactly why people should like this record. It’s the same reason so many hip hop fans love groups like Dead Prez, Public Enemy, X-Clan, Brand Nubian, and many others — the record is subversive, rebellious, and rife with conspiracy theories. No, it’s not your horrendous study habits or your lack of ambition or your group of idiot friends that are holding you back. It’s the government. It’s the aliens. It’s the government that doesn’t want you to know about the aliens. Music with this level of angst appeals to every 15 year old inside of us that’s heard a little too much from our parents, teachers, and anyone else in any position of the slightest bit of authority. I remember the first time I saw Oliver Stone’s JFK. I was probably twelve years old, but I was well aware of the hornets’ nest of theories surrounding the assassination, and wanting to believe. I basically took the film as fact, as I’m sure many others did, which is why “The Conspiracy Song” and “Here Comes Mr. X” rang so true to me. On another hip hop note, open your mind a bit and tell me that “How It’s Gonna Be” isn’t a DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince record with a different beat. The cadence is damn near the same: “Bullies beat you up, teachers put you down / sittin’ in a corner, don’t dare make a sound.” And that brings me back to why this record is so relatable. It appeals to to the frustrated kid in all of us, distancing ourselves from our parents, yet shielding ourselves from responsibilities. It’s just that now, we can look back and see how futile our efforts to rebel were. And that’s what makes us want to look back and root for the angry kid even harder.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
“I hate those Dead Milkmen,” she said thoughtfully. “What is your favorite music period?” My almost eight-year-old is learning about classical music periods, and in her ever-present desire to be an adult, she began the conversation by trying to make small talk. I had to laugh; no matter how much I’ve tried, she’s not a fan of the riot grrl and punk of the ’90s (I’m still trying), so her summation is on brand at least, but not with the entire household. Soul Rotation falls into that transitory period at the end of the ’80s, but this album skews a little more to the pop side of their discography, making it pretty fun. The album as a whole reads as bouncy, with their characteristic brashness highlighted in pretty funny lyrics that are NSFW because you’ll be jamming along and obviously not working. My favorite track on this super fun album is “Here Comes Mr. X,” a call to violence against a shitty racist wife-beating neighbor who invades the neighborhood; it feels especially cathartic and relevant with a hate monger at the helm of government. Despite initial reviews from my seven-year-old, Soul Rotation proves to be a fun romp and diversion from their norm.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
It’s so important, when looking back at older records as we do for Off Your Radar, to remember styles, opinions, and definitions of music, in the contexts of their time. Otherwise, the idea of “punk rock” following the sound of songs by a band like The Dead Milkmen, would lead to instant laughter and a questioning of stylistic assessment. The thing is, despite some of the more nuanced definitions of The Dead Milkmen as “college rock” and “alternative comedy,” the Philadelphia quintet do still reflect a stripe or two of punk flavor, even if the band doesn’t come around brandishing the more often sought sonic roughness and emotional impulsivity of punk rock. There remains a mutual carefree spirit. Though the satirical and casual lyrics on a record like Soul Rotation are certainly leaning more toward a happy and lighthearted mood closer to the bouncing, friendly energy of ska and classic skanking over the sheer recklessness and the untamed energy of a circle pit. That said, not all of Soul Rotation features fast tempo, goofy cuts like the awkwardly honest “How It’s Gonna Be,” which walks listeners though the average life progression and makes sure to emphasize details thereof in the most odd of places (“Doctor pulls you out / slaps you on the butt / and before you know it / your umbilical cord is cut”). “Wonderfully Colored Plastic War Toys” and even more so, “If I Had A Gun,” get downright dark and disturbing; the latter only given superficial cover thanks to the major interval harmonies in the chorus that help to disguise the rather uncomfortable contemplations of the song’s protagonist (“Would I be amused? / Would you be impressed? / If I had the power to put a hole into your chest?”). Of course, the contrast of sad or uncomfortable subject matter in songs combined with objectively memorable hooks is an approach as timeless as the guitar but in the case of Soul Rotation, the juxtaposition of such oppositional sounds and moods The Dead Milkmen wrote might be harder to naturally embrace for fun nowadays (just ask Foster The People whether they play their breakout hit, “Pumped Up Kicks,” at concerts anymore) when considering how much the world has changed and-or how much its original audience has grown, since this kind of satire was considered amusing. But then again, as an experience in retrospective listening, the album can be quite intriguing.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
“Where is this video going,” you ask. “Shut up and you will see,” it replies.
Once more, I find myself unsure of an album’s tone. Because of the nerdy slacker deadpan vocals throughout, I’m not entirely sure if these songs are meant as a joke or not. This is to say, Poe’s Law is in effect. Take “If I Had A Gun” as an example. “Would I wear it in a holster? / Would I keep it concealed? / Would I put it on the table / Every time that I’m misdealed?” is utterly silly, and yet there is a sect of gun culture that takes it (nearly) that far. And, again, the delivery doesn’t make it any clearer, which might’ve been the intention. Compare “If I Had” to Pearl Jam’s “Glorified G” — released the following year — to understand my confusion. Even if you knew nothing about Eddie Vedder’s personal beliefs, it’s obvious just from the opening lines alone that “Glorified G” is satire: “Got a gun / Fact, I got two / That’s okay, man, ‘cause I love God.” If you weren’t sure, however, Vedder’s bitterly sarcastic vocal makes evident what his intention is. Or take “The Conspiracy Song.” Sure, it mentions some absurd beliefs with equally absurd language, but simply labeling the perpetrators as a faceless “they” unfortunately couches the goofy (e.g., “They pick the winners on Star Search”) in reality, at least by today’s standards where the internet can extend any rabbit hole to infinity. Perhaps I’m overthinking all of this because of social media and YouTube algorithms constantly (re-)proving Poe’s Law; this is likely the case. The bouncy music suggests a lighthearted affair, and that’s the safe assumption. But what if The Dead Milkmen meant this record as satire of satire? How meta would that be?
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
It occurred to me this past week that whenever The Dead Milkmen receive any kind of accolade (often in the form of “Greatest Punk” or “Best College Radio Rock” album lists), it’s either Big Lizard In My Backyard or Beelzebubba that get the recognition. More accurately, any list that I have seen them included on has only mentioned those two albums, usually Big Lizard. I realized this, because when I was at the peak of my “discovering any band that’s remotely considered punk rock” phase, those are the only two albums of theirs I’ve ever thought to check out. So I’m glad that this week I got to finally listen to something new by the band. One thing that I’ve always kind of liked about the Dead Milkmen is that, much like the Minutemen, they’re incredibly adept musicians, but their musicianship is sometimes downplayed by the fact that they’re mostly known for writing silly punk songs. The band covers a lot of ground on Soul Rotation — “The Conspiracy Song” or “Wonderfully Colored Plastic War Toys” sound like what you might expect if you’re already familiar with “Bitchin’ Camaro,” but then there’s “The Secret Of Life,” which dials up the folk punk way past “Punk Rock Girl.” There are also plenty of funky riffs — “Big Scary Place” and “How It’s Gonna Be.” It’s just too bad that Soul Rotation had the misfortune of being released on a major label. I don’t mean that in a “ugh, I can’t believe the band sold out” kind of way (a sentiment that I’m sure that thrown around a lot because people really cared about that kind of thing in the early ’90s). No, instead I mean that in a “hey, this is a pretty good album, but in the midst of the Nirvana boom there’s no way Hollywood Records knew how to market it” kind of way. Not that I think that The Dead Milkmen were ever aiming to conquer the airwaves, but maybe if Soul Rotation had been released on their previous label, it would have fared better. Or at least it wouldn’t have gone out of print for so long.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
I was not happy to see the Bitchin’ Camaro boys in my docket for this week’s issue. And then I noticed the date of Soul Rotation and was like, “Say what, now? They made records in the ’90s?” Indeed they did, and thankfully they left the broader jokes behind in putting together this breezy collection. In jangle-pop near-classics like “The Secret Of Life,” I can actually hear their influence on one of my favorite bands of recent years, those ’90s-obsessed Aussies Scott And Charlene’s Wedding. When the Milkmen stray into a kind of ham-fisted funk, complete with elaborate horn arrangements, I’m slightly less convinced, however. But when they set those guitars to chiming over a swinging rhythm section as on “At The Moment,” “Belafonte’s Inferno,” “Silly Dreams,” and one or two others, they hit a sweet spot that reminds you why there’s so much nostalgia for the last decade of the 20th century.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
My girlfriend describes music by pairing songs and sounds with hypothetical movie scenes. I might play her an old 1960s folk tune, and she might say, “oh, this would go over the part where the main character gets off the bus in a new town…” and so on. I’m going to take a note from her approach when I say that The Dead Milkmen’s Soul Rotation could stand as the soundtrack to a Chobsky-esque coming-of-age film about some middle-class kid from the suburbs, about to start his senior year in high school. “The Secret Of Life” would play as the opening credits roll, and the school bus pulls up to the school entrance — bustling with students on a warm, sunny day. Maybe later, “The Conspiracy Song” blasts in the background while the counterculture cool kids hang out in the basement—drinking, partying, and socializing. While this album maintains a consistent aesthetic, the music beneath draws influence from all over the place. “How It’s Gonna Be” marks a shift in the album, where the group takes a note from early Red Hot Chili Peppers funk, pairing sixteenth note guitar rhythms and James Brown-style drum grooves with lyrics about God only knows what. The words on this album are weird (or surreal, depending on your persuasion) but the vocal delivery always comes in a way that serves the music and almost makes you forget that the lyrics are mostly nonsense. When you put the low stakes lyrics together with the tight, well-written music, this album makes for a pretty easy ride. Soul Rotation carries the sound of a Sunday afternoon with blue skies, and not a care in the world, which is an aesthetic that’s difficult to tire of.
Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965
The band’s major label debut shifts the focus, but still reveals a charming & creative punk band that anyone would be lucky enough to discover.
Have you ever laughed at something you thought was really funny only to look around you and realize that nobody else was laughing? I confess that I don’t really know what to make of The Dead Milkmen anymore. I thought that I had a handle on them in the ’80s as a huge fan of Beelzebubba. I adored it through and through as one of the funniest comedy music records to come out of that era. I placed it on the shelf next to The Presidents Of The United States Of America which would come later — one of a rare genre of bands who didn’t take themselves seriously. I also loved their most well-known hit, “Punk Rock Girl”, but if you asked me, I’d tell you that despite a few comically relatable lines, it was arguably their least funny song. That honor goes to “The Guitar Song” — a ballad which I thought was so comically bad that it was awesome. Now I don’t know if I was right about any of that. Was I laughing with them or at them? As I think back on it, I belly-laughed through those songs while playing it for others and I can’t recall whether or not they were laughing too. Soul Rotation filled me with doubt about my interpretation of the band. None of the first 4 tracks offer anything other than what appear to be the bands attempts at serious jangly rock music. The rest of the album has a similar rich offering of ideas about UFO’s, space, religion, and lots of almost poetic references to the end of the world. Sure, there are tiny elements of sardonic wit and it was never really as simple or as on-the-nose as Weird Al Yankovic’s comedy music, but I don’t know if this is comedy at all. I am not laughing. And so if the laughter is gone, I am forced to examine the record on its own merits and what I find is a wholly original garage rock record which plays well off the same instrumental strengths that were demonstrated on Beelzebubba. But here the band has clearly made an attempt at something more artistic than funny. For the first time, I find I am taking them seriously — and that’s a good thing. Whether or not that was their intention remains unclear.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
By the time you’ve reached the end of an album, it’s reasonable to expect that you’d have a decent handle on the band’s sound. Who they are musically. But it’s not always the case that you get to download a complete worldview via a single group of songs. The Dead Milkmen are exceptional in this sense, though I can’t proceed without acknowledging that this realization came via a band that made it big not long after Soul Rotation came out: Blink-182. The bands aren’t sonic doppelgängers; this Milkmen collection ranges from quirky punk and loose, organic ska to what can only be described as the confluence of David Bowie, Prince, and James Brown. (I kept thinking someone was on the verge of blurting out “Should I take ‘em to the bridge?” during “How It’s Gonna Be.”) But there are real thematic similarities, like a shared anxiety about aging. “How It’s Gonna Be” scans as a more scathing and detailed forebear of “What’s My Age Again?” And there’s a generalized skepticism — a questioning of what everyone seems to take for granted as they go about their daily lives. From “The Conspiracy Song” and “God’s Kid Brother” to “If I Had A Gun,” which remains sadly prescient, you get the sense that it’s the world that’s gone nuts — not the narrator. (I especially enjoyed that the Dead Milkmen share Blink’s interest in UFOs. Did you hear that Tom DeLonge has partnered with the History Channel on a show called Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation?) A zillion other factors separate these two bands, but I love how they both manage to communicate a distinctive, indelible outlook. Is it silly? Sure. But it’s also seriously effective songwriting.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
I don’t know… it sounds to me like Ted Mosby was a Dead Milkmen fan. This is mostly based off Ted Mosby’s favorite college radio host in the ’90s: Doctor X. This admired and cryptic madman would rant about conspiracy theories and far-wing political ideals, all in the years directly following the release of this record which not only reveled in conspiracy theories but also featured a track late in the record entitled “Here Comes Mr. X.” Maybe the mysterious trailblazer got his PhD? Eh, probably not. A quick purview of the song list for How I Met Your Mother comes up empty for The Dead Milkmen, leaving my theory dead in the water, but it at least brought me to another good comparison to make when considering Soul Rotation: the Pixies. (For those scratching their heads at the connection, please refresh your memory on this great closing scene.) I find a lot of the Pixies within this record: the gutsy, brazen opening track “At The Moment,” the breezy and jangly radio single “The Secret Of Life,” the lyrical cadence and inflection of “Big Scary Place,” the surprising melodic reveal of “Belafonte’s Inferno,” the talk-speak rant of “The Conspiracy Song” — and that’s just the first five songs. There are many more comparisons to be made in this spunky record, especially when the surfy elements make subtle appearances, but what’s most striking about this comparison is that above all else, The Dead Milkmen still sound unique. Never do they sound like they’re directly copying the Pixies, and really, I’m not even sure if they were influenced by a record like Doolittle or if it’s just a case of people with similar interests in punk, the fanatical, and the extraterrestrial, all of which brings us to this conversation. Whatever the catalyst, it’s really nice to have this record, which I can now safely say is a fine companion piece to Doolittle, one that’s not quite as jagged and coarse, but still offers some subversive and infectious moments that you just wouldn’t get elsewhere in rock music. And just like Doolittle, Soul Rotation has aged like a fine wine in the decades since its release.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
The Preface by Elzhi
Chosen By Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford