This article wraps up a trilogy highlighting recent releases by four artists who are touring together at this very moment: Joe Jack Talcum, Samuel Locke-Ward, Coolzey, and The Bassturd. This show hits The Blue Moose in Iowa City this Friday night and The Vaudeville Mews here in Des Moines on Saturday night.
Joe Jack Talcum’s main claim to fame is having been a member of The Dead Milkmen. Not just any member: on certain songs he was the lead singer. One of those certain songs just happened to be their biggest hit, “Punk Rock Girl.” One of those songs that a huge chunk of my generation remembers with fond smiles and can probably sing to you verbatim on request. That’s a big bullet point to have on your résumé. But it’s also the kind of thing that for an artist can become a big item of baggage you end up trying to struggle out from under to get people to pay attention to what you’re doing now. Maybe with The Dead Milkmen reformed with a new album out, it’s not a problem. But even before that, Joe Jack Talcum had already started asserting a new concept for himself, and a string of recent collaborations and tours with no less a road-warrior than Iowa City’s troubador of the troubling Samuel Locke Ward seems to have a bit to do with it, Sam lending Joe Jack the rhythm section of his crack backing band The Boo-Hoos with himself joining in on keys, under the name The Powders.
To judge by this record, Joe Jack Talcum’s recent material is really good. Part of what makes it work so well might be hearing the same voice that delivered “Punk Rock Girl” (largely unchanged, but perhaps a bit more consistently on-key) taking on a richer emotional palette and more grown-up subject matter that we can relate to in the present. Joe Jack spends these songs searching for answers, happiness, and understanding, coping with loneliness and confusion over the phase of life he finds himself reaching and the world he finds himself reaching it in. There’s an almost Johnathan Richman kind of innocence, even when the skies get grey as on “Head To Toe” and the poignant “Smoke & Mirrors,” but most especially on side-closer “Come Ride My Funny Car,” wherein he attempts to lure a woman away from hanging out at the bar to come with him instead, through the charm of a 60′s beach-rock groove and lyrics like “to the top of the yeah yeah go go star” — silly, yet seriously committed to fun. Throughout the six songs, the Powders do much more than merely follow him through the changes, navigating the swells and dynamics of the songs with extraordinary sensitivity and working in some very nice instrumental passages.
One of the neat things about a split LP is that it’s kind of like getting two EPs. Especially since the format lends itself to playing whichever side you’re in the mood for. The moods of these two sides are very different indeed, making it a record you could pull out often. All the more surprising if you take into account that much of the band lineup is identical on both sides, modulo a couple guitarists. The versatile engineering of Luke Tweedy at Flat Black Studios, where both sides were recorded last October (reportedly in one very quick, very live session), certainly doesn’t hurt.
If Joe Jack’s side of the record is a pick-me-up for rainy days, Sam’s side is another kind of mood enhancer, one you’d use to prepare for either a night of fucking shit up or a day when you have shit to do and may need to push some fuckers out of your way to do it. Though the songwriter and lead vocalist, with The Boo-Hoos, Sam seems to be operating chiefly as instigator to a project of rocking out as hard as possible, with his vocals sometimes pushed almost to the background, and as usual for him taking on various taunting falsettos and bellows. As interesting and welcome as it is to see Sam working in a loud rock format again, it was a bit harder to really get on the split 7″ with Mumfords, but the project seems to have really come into its own here. The seven quick songs showcase the band with a big guitar sound and sweaty rock and roll energy, reminiscent of The Pixies’ swan-song album Trompe Le Monde but with more satirical lyrics. Sam presents a Luddite alternate history in “This Edison Nightmare,” presents warfare as a dance craze in “Do The Pinewood Box,” and looks back fondly on some sort of riot on the infectious “Fine Was The Night.” Joe Jack Talcum guests on keyboards, harmonica, or additional vocals on a few of the songs.
I’m struggling for a good wrap-up paragraph that doesn’t just boil down to “this thing sounds really great” so I’ll just reiterate my suggestion that you go see these guys on this tour.