The Vanilla Milkshakes – Punching Cows – Album Review
Well if there’s one thing that’s certainly obvious & undisputed, it’s that this is clearly, without question, 100% definitely, a record that was made & played through Kurt Cobain’s amp.
Inside joke (Hi Jack!). Maybe I’ll explain it. Later.
Aside from releasing their cover of Nirvana’s “Breed” late last year – things were almost oddly quiet when it came to the punkasses in The Vanilla Milkshakes, who last appeared on our site in 2015 with the album Tall People Have No Feelings. Earlier in that same year, we had our first interaction with the Denver-based band of musical mischief & mayhem when I reviewed their record How To Ruin Friendships And Influence Douchebags. They made some music, I wrote some words, I continued to blast cuts like “Idiot Colorado” and still do to this day…The Vanilla Milkshakes are cool with me. I might have my opinions on this or that when it comes to their records, but you don’t become a narcissistic, big-headed, self-inflated, egotistical, holier-than-thou critic type by just phoning it in, I work hard at it!
Anyhow they’re back. FINALLY! After four years away since the last record, The Vanilla Milkshakes are swinging angsty fists and Punching Cows now in 2019. There are a few things that explain their absence – one of which was revealed to me here in the notes I’ve got, that read: “We were tired of people saying we can’t play so we pulled this off.” First of all, what did I just finish saying? I didn’t climb up to the top of this mountain for nothing – so ‘pulled this off?’ I’ll be the judge of that, thank-you very much guy.
But I’ll admit, I was intrigued…could it be these Grunge-punkers had cleaned up their act entirely this time around? Possible, not probable…and highly doubtful! But maybe they’ve taken more time and care with their new record…I could see that happening. Another part of the explanation would be that the legendary Jack Endino had to be like, tracked down with a team of sled-dogs and notes via carrier pigeon…and that’s who they wanted to produce their new album. Somehow, they convinced him; so likely what they had to do to get the money for that is likely another part of the overall hold-up. There’s no telling what a desperate band will do to get the job done…and there ain’t no one out there more desperate than The Vanilla Milkshakes, believe that. While the sled-dogs probably weren’t REALLY a part of the story and Punching Cows was recorded in Seattle – the Jack Endino part is very real; and according to legend, he sounds like a pretty damn nice guy – he even ended up walking lead-singer David’s therapy dog multiple times per day while they were all there in the recording session. Hopefully that’s just because he loves dogs and wasn’t just trying to escape…probably time we find that out…
…and with the ol’ “1, 2, 3, 4” count, we’re off to the races. Let’s punch some motherfuckin’ cows!
“Cookie Monster” actually does immediately confirm that The Vanilla Milkshakes are back & sounding better than ever before…it’s still a solid mix of their signature slash & hack Grunge-Pop that’ll always retain that raw wildness to it, but if you’re familiar with their music from the past, you’ll hear in this very first cut that the band has indeed stepped it up in many ways. Of course kudos the mixer & master of the universe, Jack Endino, who has done a killer job of getting that vibe The Vanilla Milkshakes have always wanted on record. In reference to the opening of this review…I’ll also fill in the blanks for you now – it was never Kurt Cobain’s amp to begin with – it’s always been Jack’s apparently, and he was kind enough to allow The Vanilla Milkshakes to run these tunes through its legendary tubes & wires in an effort to get them the sound they were really after. So you’re damn straight they turned up the heat as a result of such extraordinary privilege, and they immediately do this supreme service justice by ferociously attacking “Cookie Monster” right from the drop. It’s got a bit of that punked-up Ramones-esque energy, in addition to that playful approach you already know & love from The Vanilla Milkshakes – their tongue-in-cheek lyricism and sarcastic attitude is still fully intact. Backing vocals add huge personality to the verses and solidify the melody in the chorus; the hooks are strong, the vibe is inviting and the sound is accessible here…”Cookie Monster” is a great start to their new album.
“1000 People” comes out kicking & thrashing with a big, authoritative stomp & grind. David McGhee is on FIRE in this cut – the guitars sound absolutely killer on this track, the whole sound of “1000 People” really gets into the thick of it with a beefy low-end cut for ya from Punching Cows. Vocally, I get it – David’s gonna be a hit with some and a miss with others stylistically…but presumably if you found your way to the Grunge-anything section and you ended up picking up this record, you kinda knew what you’d be in for, didn’t you? For me, he’ll hit more often than miss, especially when it comes to this record. As far as “1000 People” goes – I mean, musically this should already be more than enough for ya as it is – The Vanilla Milkshakes sound large & in-charge here. I’ve spent a good portion of this past week spinning this record and no matter how many times I did, “1000 People” never lost its appeal or edge to its hard-hitting sound & catchy hooks – this was always one of my favorite cuts in the lineup. The opening alone gets me rockin’ a raging half-chub – The Vanilla Milkshakes slay the music on this cut full-force, playing with timing and stuttered shots of explosive sound…killer breakdown & comeback – kind of a vibe like you’d find from The Replacements with a bit of that Social Distortion sound in there too for good measure. It’s the aggression that’s appealing here for sure – “1000 People” sounds like The Vanilla Milkshakes at their most sure, confident, and compelling…definitely another strong tune.
Time away has served them well though…there’s no doubt about that in my mind…the ideas are stronger on this record than they have been in the past, more consistent as well. “Damn Right” is another track that…I mean damn, this is ultimately a really, really strange tune…to become addicted to. I ain’t gonna lie to ya…a song like this is kind of where my own Grunge-based roots and preferences take over a little bit…I can absolutely hear that “Damn Right” would be more of a challenge for some listeners compared to the first two cuts…but for me, this is a strong three-for-three to start this album up. “Damn Right” proves that David was right about stepping it up musically – I think there’s a ton of killer sound being pumped out of this song that can’t be denied. For me, it’s probably all about the verse of this cut…the music there is just straight-up killer, no doubt about it – and I dig what David’s doing vocally. That might be more enthusiasm for the idea than the tone, but I ain’t hatin’ on this performance either…in the Grunge-playbook, this is more than acceptable. What I would say is that, with the exception of how the chorus brightens-up in the music, the verses & sound of “Damn Right” goes for a lower-end driven approach, which obviously provides a noticeable contrast with the sound of McGhee’s voice, which is naturally higher-up in tone than the rest of what you’ll hear. So…I ain’t gonna lie to ya…it can be an odd combo at times, but for what it’s worth, “Damn Right” was the cut on this record that, the more I spun it, the more I seemed to really get right into this tune. People out there will connect with the catchy hooks of the chorus no problem…for me, it’s about the verse here for the most part, but I’ll fully admit they had me singing along with them in the chorus by the end of this experience.
“Everybody Is Stupid” – I mean…they ain’t wrong. That being said, I’m probably more take it or leave it with this particular tune than any of the rest so far; I still think it fits, still sounds cohesive and works with the rest of what they’ve got going on throughout Punching Cows. The thing about songs like this, is that you’re probably more likely to be singing “Everybody Is Stupid” around the house afterwards than any of the first three tunes…that’s the effect of the hooks of this cut. I’m not advocating for them on behalf of ‘yeah I love this chorus’ – I’m just simply saying what they’ve got here is something that works. Like they’ve definitely got something that the people can chant & sing along with, and that’s gonna be an asset when it comes to playing this cut live, especially with the stripped-down breakdown, where they can get everyone clapping hands and doing the whole rockstar gambit before surging back into the hooks. “Everybody Is Stupid” still has a killer solo to be enjoyed and a whole lot of attitude as well. For longstanding fans of the band, you’ll have no problems at all here in getting into “Everybody Is Stupid” – it’s got the classic vibe of The Vanilla Milkshakes for sure…and as much as I might try to deny the power & pull of a song like this personally, I can certainly hear the ironic potential for it to pull in the masses; and with the right video, who knows…they might just score some viral points with a cut like this.
Expanding to nearly the FIVE MINUTE MARK? The Vanilla Milkshakes? Is that still you? “Green And Sober” starts out with one of the strongest beginnings you’ll find on any of these songs on Punching Cows. It might outshine itself from verse to chorus…that’s probably a factor here for me. I dig what’s happening vocally in the verses of this tune, but the chorus definitely comes out a bit strained. And so like…I end up in this push/pull relationship with this tune…some of the instrumentation without vocals is pure perfection. While I know a completely polished sound is just about the last thing The Vanilla Milkshakes would ever really want – when they’re working inside of a melody that’s gonna be the main set of hooks too…that’s where you want those tones to come out the smoothest or most passionate. I’m not entirely sure that you get that in the chorus here…I’ll put it that way. Could be the harmonies that are getting the best of them here, could just be the complexity of the melody itself…but like, DAMN – because when they EXIT the chorus of “Green And Sober” they’ll find what I’d probably consider to be the highlight moments on the entire record. I can hear it’s a demanding tune melody-wise…I like that The Vanilla Milkshakes fully understand what is awkward and why this might sound awkward at times, yet still choose to go their own natural directions. Outside of the chorus…like around the 2:30 mark and the run to the end of this tune, they sound like Weezer X10 – killer Pop/Grunge hooks that act as a whole second chorus to “Green And Sober” – it might be a bit of a mixed bag, but ultimately, still a solid cut in so many ways…there are moments on this tune that the record wouldn’t be complete without.
I’m actually 100% alright with “Mommy Said To Get A Job” – I didn’t exactly think I would be, but they crush this cut. More close to what you’d expect in length from this band as opposed to the tune beforehand, The Vanilla Milkshakes make maximum carnage within just two minutes of tune, amping up the wildness a lil’ bit more to fuel the fire in the mid-section of this record. You get like, five seconds to catch your breath before the Pop/Punk energy of “Mommy Said To Get A Job” springs to life – and in a killer display of raising the stakes, they make the most of the explosiveness in the chorus of this cut. That’s entirely what sold me. I notoriously struggle with songs about Mommy, Daddy, Grandpa, & Grandma…that ain’t usually where I’m at…like, at all…but the way that The Vanilla Milkshakes make use of every second and every pore of your speakers on “Mommy Said To Get A Job” became the exception. The energy continues to blaze with “Oblique” – and perhaps a cut like this is a good one to shout out Frank Registrato on the throne back there…because I’m pretty sure the guy has eight arms after listening to this song – the man’s a machine! WILD cut…”Oblique” will even descend into a freakout hillbilly jam breakdown for a moment or two, in addition to providing sounds of all kinds that have real depth along the way. The Vanilla Milkshakes will punk this up quickly at the beginning, coming out with Frank leading the way with his octopus arms all flailing around and beating up the drum-kit like it owes him money. This would be an excellent example of the band pushing themselves to do more this time around though…there’s no doubt about it in listening to a track like “Oblique” – not only is the pace demanding tempo-wise, but the change-ups and transitions in the structure of this track have a much wider gap between sounds that they have to somehow straddle, and they pull this off flawlessly. So for you haters out there that think The Vanilla Milkshakes can’t play or don’t really give a damn – think again – listen to the involved ideas that are strung together here & recognize they nailed’em all tightly.
So again, I hear a tune like “White Lights” and I know what the masses will hear; I know what fans of the genre will hear as well – let’s be clear, these are two completely separate things. The classic anti-singer at all times, when David slips into that extra 10% of the Grunge-vibe at times, things really fit their vision and ambitions for what The Vanilla Milkshakes wanna be. For me, the verses are exceptionally cool in respect to all that I’ve said – I’d expect probably somewhere between 85%-90% of listeners out there will likely disagree with me – it’ll be the hooks & chorus of “White Lights” that’ll have them paying attention. Ultimately, I’m not gonna fight anyone on this…I’d completely get it; I think hooks-wise, there’s probably a solid argument to be made that “White Lights” has some of the strongest you’ll find in the chorus of this tune…all I’m saying is that you can hear what this band is really all about in the verse – that’s the roots of the vibe right there. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m immune to the chorus hooks either…I’m just a fan of that exquisite anti-energy that The Vanilla Milkshakes do so well when they wanna…there’s a ton of that push/pull vibe throughout “White Lights,” which ultimately breaks loose in the chorus and sets these guys free to float about in the melody, madness, and mayhem. Not that I’d ever accuse The Vanilla Milkshakes of going all serious on ya, but notably, they do also dive into deeper concepts thematically here too that a lot of ya out there could probably relate to for sure.
Mike King has brought a lot to this record as well…his bass playing has really given strength to these tunes on Punching Cows and thickened the sound in really impressive ways. “On+On+On” is another killer example of how much he contributes…like for anyone out there that might have felt The Vanilla Milkshakes were a bit treble-up or thin in the past, those kind of issues are all resolved through the mix & musicianship of their latest record, and Mike’s definitely a big part of that. “On+On+On” is quite an interesting little ditty really…in a couple ways, you can actually hear more of an adherence to a typical Rock-song structure here than in much of their material; I’m not saying that out of slight, just surprise. I certainly wouldn’t ever go as far as to say they’re like, ‘normal’ or ‘conforming’ here completely – but yeah, something about “On+On+On” that sounds like it has the potential to reach a whole different audience for the band – and they wear this different suit more comfortably than I would have thought. It’s almost like you can hear McGhee realize this in a way as he’s singing it…you can hear a bit of a built-in laugh and playfulness in his vocal melody throughout the verse. I dig that they throw the switch pretty successfully here with the surge into the chorus hooks…which I think will probably catch just about everyone out there one way or the other, like’em or not – this track will get stuck in your head.
I’m just thankful there’s a song out there that’ll tell me “What All The Cool Kids Do” – it’s kind of hard to have any kind of idea when y’aint one, know what I mean? I’m just an old greybeard & another opinion with an asshole…so thank-you The Vanilla Milkshakes, for shedding some light where once only was dark. This is “What All The Cool Kids Do” eh? According to the chorus, “All the kids are doing drugs” – so maybe I had more in common with that crowd than I originally thought. *cough *cough *bong rip. But like…all kidding around aside – come the fuck on, The Vanilla Milkshakes are kicking ALL the ass musically on “What All The Cool Kids Do” from the very first second and they never let their feet off the gas pedal from there. Love the crunch of the guitars on this cut, love the pace, love the grind of the pre-chorus and the surge into the chorus. Another track where I’d argue you hear some of the most accessible sound & ideas on display – the chorus they’ve created here is extremely addictive. Solid chance that this could be my favorite cut on the record…verse is strong, pre-chorus amps up the energy even more, and the chorus carries the melodic payload. As far as tunes from this album go, there’s a lot of reasons in the dynamic structure and pumped-up sound of “What All The Cool Kids Do” that make it a strong candidate as a potential single to bring the people in to listen further…I’d definitely put this up there with the best of the best from this set of songs and from their catalog in general.
Look. There’s no doubt that The Vanilla Milkshakes have added more beef to Punching Cows and that this material is stronger & perhaps a bit more modernized – that STILL doesn’t mean they’re about to jump right onto the trendy train and cover a rap tune – so no, “Hey Ya!” is not a cover of the Outkast hit. Like a great many of the cuts on this record, there’s a really oddly addictive and unique vibe that runs through this song that’s bound to connect to ya in the weirdest of welcoming ways. I’d probably argue there’s even a bit of a spiritual chanting or tribal sound to the way they’ve approached the chorus vocals here…and perhaps even more impressively, I’d argue that this completely works in their favor somehow. If you were to read that here in the review and try to envision how that would sound with what you might know about The Vanilla Milkshakes, I get it – it seems like it would be a stretch – but you’ll be surprised to hear just how tight this last track becomes on the fringe-side of their style. I’m impressed with the fact that there is so much more noticeable versatility in the songs on this record…you really can hear The Vanilla Milkshakes reaching for more on songs like “Hey Ya!” and other examples like “Damn Right,” “Green And Sober,” and “Oblique” to point out a few more…it’s like they’re…*gulp…trying new things! The proof is in the pudding here, as they say – there’s not a doubt in my mind that The Vanilla Milkshakes can hear this record has come out as the strongest in their catalog to-date & that spending their fortunes on securing Jack Endino’s expertise in behind the studio boards, was indeed money well spent. They’ve grown as promised…they might never fully ‘mature’ exactly, but yeah, they’ve grown up a bit on Punching Cows…and they seem to have attacked this record with a lot more focus all-around.
Find out more about The Vanilla Milkshakes at their official pages below!