CoolMom and I lived in Seattle for about five years. It was back when alternative rock was sometimes synonymous with the Top 40: Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, all of their combinations and offshoots like Temple of the Dog and Mad Season, and Nirvana. We’d drive around in our red Toyota Tercel hatchback with its broken speakers and listen to Seattle’s KNDD every day. Those bands all achieved godlike status in the Pacific Northwest. When “The End” wasn’t playing “local acts” like Nirvana, others like Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer and their own poppier takes on the Northwest sound would rattle those tiny speakers.
That sound, though, had its beginnings with decidedly not Northwest bands like The Pixies, Hüsker Dü, and Dinosaur Jr. whose J Mascis Kurt Cobain once asked to join Nirvana following a gig at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. Some of those bands, in turn, (especially Dinosaur Jr.) could trace their lineage back to the sounds of classic rock, to acts like Neil Young.
Olympia, Washignton’s Milk Music, on their debut LP, Cruise Your Illusion, have taken all of those influences, the bands from their Pacific Northwest home cringingly described as “grunge,” Smashing Pumpkins, and early Weezer; they’ve ratcheted up the proto-grunge, underground sounds of Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. and more directly referenced the twang of classic rock. And, taking the list of influences full circle I guess, guitarist Alex Coxen manages not only to coax sounds reminiscent of J Mascis and Neil young from his guitar, but he’s also able to make you think, for a few moments here and there, of the left-handed, Pacific Northwest guitar sound that has shaped rock music for the last 45 years.
That Cruise Your Illusion will be different from the band’s 2010 EP, Beyond Living, is apparent from opening instrumental “Caged Dogs Run Wild.” The song balances the hard-driving Hüsker Dü guitar attack of the earlier recording with a bit of a country twang. Similarly, “Illegal and Free” would be a punk anthem, Coxen wailing “Don’t fuck with me man. / I’m illegal and free,” if it weren’t for his slithery, slippery lead guitar line. That guitar line is also the record’s first example of the Mascis / Hendrix hybrid that is Coxen’s sound.
Things start to sound a little more like you’d expect, given Milk Music’s heritage, on “Cruising with God.” On that song, Coxen calls out the current mp3, blogrock culture, singing “You haven’t danced in so long…,” followed by a blistering guitar solo, then, “Welcome to the real fucking world, brother!”
Jimi Hendrix gets a direct lyrical shoutout in “No, Nothing, My Shelter.” “Lacey’s Secret,” a song with a Springsteen-like title, some Springsteen-like lyrics, and some early Springsteen-like vocals from Coxen, opens with some sweet-sounding guitar strumming and meanders along on a country rock vibe. The album closes with epic, eight-minute rambler, “The Final Scene,” Coxen’s vocals backed by some “ooh ooh’s” and more of that guitar.
I posted something a while back, at CoolDad Music, kind of making fun of the fact that the top-selling albums at my local record shop were all by artists who could have been up there when I was in high school, or even earlier. As I listen to Cruise Your Illusion (and the self-titled debut from California X, and Open Your Heart or New Moon from The Men), I ask myself if I’m so different. Is it nostalgia that attracts me to these records? I don’t think so. Pop music, indie rock, mindie rock isn’t really about experimentation. It’s about building something new from the timeless, recognizable sounds that came before. Milk Music isn’t a nostalgia act. They’re a band honing and finding their own sound, and they may just be fronted by one of rock’s next guitar heroes.
Cruise Your Illusion is out now on Fat Possum.