It took me several listens to really get inside The Milkman’s Union. Yes, it sounded like good, independently produced rock music. You know, electric guitars, wordy lyrics, drums that lingered somewhere between time keeping and expressionist flourishes. It wasn’t until I sat down exhausted in a darkening room and stared out at the heavy blue skies of early winter evening while hearing the line “I drove home in a long line of cars” listlessly intoned by singer Henry Jamison that it all clicked into place. It’s all there in that one image: the highway at night (has to be night), the long line of beat little cars with their beat little drivers staring straight ahead, moving in bleak unison, oozing worms of light out into the blue that blink over the desiccated skeletons of winter trees each time the road bends. The heavy crunch of tires on the gravel driveway and the sudden yawning silence when the engine is cut. That moment of no thought when the driver disappears somewhere even he doesn’t know, just before he clanks the seatbelt and steps through the silence and into the house, each footstep’s sound hanging crisp in the cold air. Melancholy. Not sure how I ever missed it. The Milkman’s Union is lousy with it, and it’s the weary, faded blue of those winter skies, not to mention most of the music I lost myself in during my lonely high school years.
Jamison, who started the project in high school as a solo affair before being joined by Peter McLaughlin, Sean Weathersby, and Akiva Zamcheck, lists Ben Gibbard as a main influence, and you can hear it in that The Milkman’s Union are young educated folk making highly accessible, deeply melancholy pop rock with a literary bent. But where Gibbard is goopy and schoolboyish, there’s something academic and world weary about Jamison’s dry vocals. It threw me at first, but now I like it. It doesn’t have the clean purity of Gibbard’s voice, but clean purity gets boring pretty fast, and there’s something addictive about the wispy airiness of Jamison’s singing. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that someone who sounds so tired can never sound maudlin or dramatic. It’s hard to pin down. At times it seems like his voice isn’t even there, like it’s a ghost telling you about the marigolds in the hair of some long ago lover (those are lyrics. I’m not being pretentious anymore). In fact, there is an air of wilting, 1920s decadence that permeates the entire Roads In album from which these tracks are lifted. Someone’s always pouring a drink (and it’s never beer), and the songs’ narrators are constantly reading (I read a little book on the origin of man) and delivering wryly nasty punchlines (how many gentlemen does it take to screw you in?). I mean, the former two are the main activities in college, so it makes sense, and maybe the song about the 1919 White Sox scandal is tainting my thoughts, but there’s just something old-fashioned sounding about a band who uses a phrase like I’ve been duped again as a chorus.
Jamison, in his blurb for the band, identifies this era of The Milkman’s Union as a point in an evolution, and he’s exactly right. There are periodic moments of uncertainty, things you’d expect from such a young band. A sudden lurch of the tempo, like driving over a speedbump, or a word at the end of a line left floating awkwardly. Yet these things don’t disturb the mood, which is the meat of the music. The vocals are always hinting at the large, aching emotions of the musical backdrops, but they refuse to go there themselves. Note that the big climax of A-side “Roads In” comes sans vocals. Zamcheck’s winding, modal guitar solo steps forward to provide catharsis. Jamison’s voice never ever rises above a mutter, and the lyrics remain elusive, but sometimes the violent house-cleaning kind of confession is far less interesting than the disquieting odds and ends that we’re given here. There’s a mystery there that’s alluring. It’s not the girl who throws her cleavage in your face every chance she gets, it’s the one who hardly even looks at you, but every once in a while maybe you catch her in a little surreptitious glance.
Peter McLaughlin’s shimmery drums are a crucial element to this mystery, drawing heavily from non-rock musical traditions in a way that keeps their music from ever getting bogged down in its own emotional weight, which is all too easy for this kind of melancholia. The latin-tinged mallets that commence “Roads In” are an open sky where a backbeat would have been a closed door. They keep the listener uncertain while pushing the time forward, and so does the asymmetry behind the second verse. Over on B-side “Emerald Flares” the prim jazz brushes neatly buoy the song up, keeping it floating and airy. This lightness is crucial in music with such a pervasive sadness, and it’s surprisingly difficult to accomplish, since of course it must sound effortless.
I could describe the songs in greater detail, talk about the sweetly melodic bass and hazy lead lines coasting over “Emerald Flares”, the drumless Yo La Tengo-y (think “Green Arrow”) interludes in “Roads In” that seem to hang in the air like slow-motion footage of something thrown aloft, but I don’t think I need to. The music conjures up its own cloud of mood the moment it comes on. Just try to listen at dusk.