S’fair to write that I probably wouldn't have heard the Milk & Honey Band if a promo copy of their third release, Dog Eared Moonlight, hadn't arrived tucked alongside Ape House Records' recent reissues of the Dukes of the Stratosphear, but since the disc has come, I've been playing it almost as obsessively as my beloved Dukes. This is one sweetly smart pop-rock set.
You can quickly hear why Ape House founder Andy Partridge wanted to put these guys on his label: on more than one track, you can detect elements of XTC in bandleader Robert White's song constructions. The piano-driven "Maryfaith Autumn" melds Moody Blues-styled chordwork with the XTC of Mummer, while the winning "what's-it-all-mean" track "Absolutely Wrong" sounds like a series of questions that the self-deprecating Mayor of Simpleton might've asked himself as he strolled along the village green, muttering to himself.
Elsewhere, singer/songwriter White, with his soothing Sweet Baby James styled voice, rocks a trace more insistently, though never so harshly as to spoil the pastoral ambience. In a couple of tracks ("Waste of Time," "What You Really Need"), I'm reminded of Dave Grohl in one of his more melodic moments, though neither cut goes for the full-throated takeoff that the Foo Fighter would bring to the material. I'd love to hear that band tackle the obsessive "Waste of Time," though.
White's lyrics are plainspoken, if frequently quizzical. ("Why did God invent disaster?" he asks in "Wrong.") While we may not always believe the man when he affects an "I don't know much" stance, he and his band still manage to convey the sense of sitting outside on a dog-eared summer night, idly wondering where this world is spinning us. I'm not usually a sucker for these sensitive troubadour types (could never quite fathom the appeal of Nick Drake, for instance), but White and the gang have enough bright pop neurosis to keep me listening. And when he's not waxing wonderingly, the Milk & Honey man displays an intriguingly edgy sense of the risks of romantic love.
In "Cut the Line," for instance, he uses slide guitar and a Spanish melody to pull us into a tale of a trapped lover, while, in the Aztec Camera-eyed "Incredible Visions," he describes obsessive love so appealingly that it isn't until the song's atonal guitars slip in that you don't start to consider how potentially creepy it all can be. Life on the village green – as Ray Davies and Partridge both have reminded us in the past – ain't all sweetness and light.