The Mr. T Experience - Alcatraz (retro review) (Cover Artwork)

The Mr. T Experience

Alcatraz (retro review) (1999)

Lookout! Records

My 1999 self was an interesting sort. I loved my punk rock and I had a particular niche that I gravitated towards: Ramones-derived stuff. I loved buzzsaw guitars, quick drums, simple riffs, and simpler lyrics. And with the right voice, I could get suckered in pretty easily.

One of my favorite bands was Mr. T Experience. Dr. Frank was right up there as one of my favorite smart aleck lyricists, at once goofy, sweet, and literate. By 1999, Mr. T Experience seemed mostly untouchable. Good times like Making Things With Light were seemingly surpassed with classics including Our Bodies Our Selves and Love Is Dead. Sure, I guess I couldn’t have figured that run to keep going, but I also didn’t expect for it to end.

Then, 1999’s Alcatraz happened. I remember the excitement I had at the thought of a new MTX record. But I also remember the sinking let down I felt upon hearing it. Lots of acoustic guitars? Horns and organs? Some mid-tempo throwback rock? I was unimpressed. Thankfully, my current self has evolved a bit; and with my personal growth, so too have I grown in my appreciation of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz hedges towards simple pop songs. And while the kid in me sort of recoiled at the diminished distorted guitars, the middle-aged me better appreciates MTX’s attempts at evolving their songcraft. And that’s really what Alcatraz is about. After years of writing great and simple pop punk songs (i.e. Love Is Dead) and coloring them in with various complexities (i.e. Milk Milk Lemonade), Alcatraz catches MTX in full-on pop mode.

And boy, does Mr. T Experience have the pop thing down. On the unfussy and vulnerable earworm that is “Hey Emily”, Dr. Frank puts to use great lines like “Any two other people just like me and you/Never seem to go through half the trouble that we do/It's the end, over and over again/When did you first begin/To be so disappointed in everything?” Later, on the great-but-from-where melody and infectious singalong of “Our Days Are Numbered”, Dr. Frank muses “And as the days turn into weeks/And as the weeks turn into months/You start to turn into yourself/You only get to do it once”.

On certain Alcatraz songs, Dr. Frank decides to summon the ghosts of pop rock past. “Tomorrow Is A Harsh Mistress” sounds like a ‘60’s-era garage rock song with its vamping organs and catchy chorus. And a couple songs channel an even earlier era. Between the spoken word bit, the vocal melody, and the guitar sound and rhythm, “Two Of Us” feels like a ‘50’s throwback. Even “I Fell For You” sports a cool ‘50’s sound on its guitar solo and a bit of an Elvis affectation on the vocals.

All of this to say, even with the fun songs above that I’ve come around on, Alcatraz really hinges on one Dr. Frank stunner, opener “I Wrote a Book About Rock & Roll”. This upbeat and supremely memorable song has all of the MTX earmarks of greatness: simple guitars, great melodies, ornery energy, sweet backing vocals, and clever lyrics. When Frank sings lines like “I know words like ‘sobriquet,’ ‘malaise’ and ‘plutocrat,’ And I compare the Shaggs to Wittgenstein -- How cool is that?”, you’ll have to smile at his takedown of music writers. This song could easily slide alongside the high-water marks of their earlier stuff.

Alcatraz isn’t the rambunctious punk rock that Mr. T Experience had been most noted for. But it didn’t have to be. Dr. Frank more than earned the right to try out a few new directions. On this one, the band gave us something new to chew on. It’s still clever, it’s still fun; it’s still MTX.