I first have to confess that I think Milk Music’s debut 12-inch, Beyond Living, was the best rock record of 2010 but, significantly, also the best rock record I didn’t hear in 2010. Why attach such importance to the negative space of an aural absence? Because when I first heard the trio play in the summer of 2011, the experience was, without hyperbole, something of a revelation. Long hair, real fucking riffs, guitar solos at a hardcore show: I was converted. I took the subway home that night with my faith newly restored in the power of guitar, bass, and drums, in the hands of dudes that for once weren’t twice my age. But it wasn’t until I got to a computer that the event really took on decisive significance. Naturally inclined to glean as much information about my new heroes as possible, I was shocked to learn that a band with a sold-out record were scarcely present on the internet. A sole interview was all I could find, but rather than discouraging my search, the iconographic void compounded my interest to a paradoxical near idolatry. I became obsessed. How could a band this good be so virtually ignored?
Asked in that single shred of an interview why his band had refused to sign to a label, frontman Alex Coxen replied, “You wouldn’t believe how many I’ve turned down. What’s the point of having a record label in fucking 2011?” And he had a point: with the efficiency of digital distribution, what is a label if not a mere outlet for fetish objects? But for Milk Music, this refusal was absolute. Not having a record label also meant not having a website, booking their own tours, and putting out their own records, all while living in a leaky attic in Olympia for $100 a month. Refreshingly atavistic, such a commitment to jamming econo was also a business model: “I want a family one day,” Coxen insisted, denying claims that the band might be “trying to underground.”
But, as Alex R Wilson asks in a recent review, “Does DIY support a family?” Such a concern must have weighed heavily upon the band and Coxen in particular, because in the intervening years, Milk Music have erected a website, hired a booking agent, and signed to Fat Possum for their first full-length album. The veil has been lifted, the band has been humanized, and the shroud of mystery that so attracted me in the first place has dissipated. Writing about Cruise Your Illusion, then, is difficult for me. I feel simultaneously betrayed by their submission to the norms of indie promotional channels and elated that they are finally receiving the attention they deserve.
I need to reiterate that none of this would matter if that first record didn’t rip so hard, its six tracks fitting as seamlessly into a mid-80s SST record that never was, as does the band’s ethos. With shades of Hüsker Dü, Wipers, and Dinosaur Jr. thrashing urgently into the unknown, the songs could be called slacker anthems only in that they seem so effortlessly delivered. But Beyond Living was distinctly Milk Music’s own: heavy yet melodic, with a guitar tone tempered to meaty perfection.
Cruise Your Illusion features twice as many tracks as its predecessor, some of which (“Dogchild,” “Crosstown Wanderer,” “Coyote Road,” “Lacey’s Secret”) could have been cut for leaner results, but it also marks Milk Music’s first with fourth member Charles Waring on second guitar, an addition that has allowed the band to stretch out into a more open space. It is as if Coxen’s coyote howl has emerged from its cave, the band’s Thin Lizzy twin leads and Zuma impressionism triumphantly unfurling in the sun. The album may have fewer peaks and less of the dark low-end and urgency that made their debut so incredibly compelling, but it is remarkable in its consistency.
I’ve found myself projecting the same desires onto Milk Music that a lot of grunge critics also fell prey to in the early 90s, only they seem even more relevant now. My initial impression of the band’s neanderthal purity, far removed from the poses of what passes today as underground rock, is little different from NME lusting after the exoticism of lumberjack Tad. My interpretive eye even reads a reflective recurrence of Kurt Cobain’s struggle reconciling his values with stardom into the broken glass and mirrors of Coxen’s newly naked lyrics. But even at its most ludicrous (“Don’t fuck with me, man/ I’m illegal and free”), Coxen’s message feels honest (“You see me and the boys/ We’re not that insincere kind”). I know I’m supposed to have dispensed with a concern with authenticity by now, but rock music is ultimately about a wild feeling, and Milk Music are delivering it in just the right place.
I’ve barely touched upon the specifics of the album itself, but it’s a rock record released in fucking 2013, so just go listen to it. Stream Cruise Your Illusion or buy the CD from Fat Possum, but know that Milk Music have also released the LP themselves for you DIY fetishists bent on keeping the dream alive.