Graded on a Curve:
Too Much Joy,
Cereal Killers

I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for smart-ass rockers since the first Dictators album. Fortunately my doctor tells me that soft spot doesn’t pose a danger to my ticker, any more than the very real heart attack I suffered a couple of years ago due to, I kid you not, eating a single slice of American cheese. (It’s a long story.) As for power pop jesters Too Much Joy, I’m sure they’d see the humor in a cheese-induced heart attack, which is why—in addition to their hook-filled melodies—I like them so much. They love a good laugh as much as I do.

Formed in Scarsdale, New York in the early eighties, the quintet won comparisons to They Might Be Giants thanks to their erudite and witty lyrics; but their power pop props make me think of Redd Kross, who also fuse big hooks with clever and off-kilter lyrics. Indeed, it’s a sign of shared interests that Redd Kross wrote a power pop classic called “Dracula’s Daughter,” while Too Much Joy penned one of their own entitled “Pride of Frankenstein.” “Pride” is on Too Much Joy’s third album, 1991’s Cereal Killers, which I love to death thanks to several immortal tunes, including the catchy “Long Haired Guys From England,” the hilarious “Theme Song,” and the crushingly captivating “Nothing on My Mind,” an anthem that I rank right up there with such power pop classics as “Surrender,” “Overnight Sensation,” and the aforementioned “Dracula’s Daughter.”

The best tunes on Cereal Killers include “Susquehanna Hat Company,” a punchy number about a girl who’s a “mental hurricane.” “All you do is say her name,” goes the chorus, “Everybody goes insane,” while the verse goes, “Spun herself round and round/Drilled herself into the ground/Twenty kids fell in that hole/I was twenty-one out of control.” Meanwhile, “Good Kill” boasts a great melody and too many great lines to mention, so I’ll just toss off the second stanza, “Some people think Rod McKuen is a poet/Some folks think there’s evil folks and good/Some people vote to electrocute the bad ones/They stand outside the prison and cheer when the lights go dim.” Which I don’t think they think is a joke, God bless ‘em. And on top of that none other than KRS-ONE makes a cameo, to lend his own voice against what I consider a barbaric exercise in state sanctioned murder.

“Crush Story” has a bigger hook than the one on that famous pirate, and the title says it all: vocalist Tim Quirk sings, “Everything you’ve ever said is brilliant/Anything you wanna do is fine with me/This is much better than love, babe/This is a crush story.” Meanwhile the backing vocal harmonies are transcendental, and Quirk, an egomaniac with an inferiority complex if there ever was one, calls himself, “the smallest giant ever.” And speaking of Captain Hook, “Pirate” features some humongous riffs and the great line, “Everyone should sleep with everyone tonight.” Meanwhile Quirk is out of touch with his inner pirate, just as he’s conflicted in “King of Beers,” where he sings “I am invincible/I have no fear/I am benevolent/I am the king of beers” one minute and “Why am I such an asshole/Why am I here alone?” the next. And who can resist a line as brilliant as, “She’s so beautiful/I swear I’d sleep with her brother”?

“Nothing on My Mind” starts slowly and builds, builds, builds, hitting a magical Raspberries moment when Quirk sings, “I’ll give you a coloring book/You can draw outside the lines” only to be joined by the other lads on the line, “I’ve got nothing on my mind.” It’s dizzyingly, deliriously lovely, and strangely in contrast with the lines, “My cousin died at a Who concert/He was camping out in line” that follows. Quirk then speaks the lines, “I was in a movie one time/I didn’t have any lines/Just smiled at the leading lady/Got cut but at least they paid me/I got nothing to say/I hope you have a nice day/I’m out of control/Je t’aime le rock and roll,” to the accompaniment of great backing vocals and one stinging guitar solo. As for “Pride of Frankenstein,” it’s the story of a weird guy all the kids threw rocks at, but who just stared them down “with the pride of Frankenstein.” Quirk then takes on the role himself: “Sometimes I feel like that village idiot/A babbling fool that children should avoid” before the great final stanza: “This is a song for those who can’t sing/I want to buy you a diamond ring/And if those diamond rings don’t shine/We can all share a jug of cheap red wine/And the pride of Frankenstein.”

As for the fetching and catchy “Thanksgiving in Reno,” it includes the memorable lines, “We got stoned/We had sex/I had a dream about Evel Knievel,” to say nothing of the lines, “Me and my buddy Jay/Watched bad cover bands play/Got little drinks for free/Kept betting on 23.” And in the end it turns out he got stoned but made up the part about having sex, although he “really had that dream/About Evel Knievel.” “Long Haired Guys From England” is the LP’s second best song. It’s a sour grape of a tune about how girls only “want to fuck/Long haired guys from England/Long haired guys from the United Kingdom.” There’s no topping the stanza that goes, “All the girls in this here bar/Will treat you like a star/Don’t get excited it’s just luck/They’ll ignore you if the guy from the Cult shows up.”

As for “Theme Song” it’s just that, the band’s very own “Hey Hey We’re the Monkees.” A slow but happy number, it features the great lyrics, “We sleep on floors and live on crumbs/We’re a bunch of ugly bums/A great idea when we were smashed/Turning anger into cash.” And there’s no topping the chorus, which goes, “To create we must destroy/Smash a glass and cry Too Much Joy.” It’s a wonderful tune about a good but impoverished band, and includes the great couplet, “We ain’t seen much but we don’t starve/We drive around in our mom’s cars.” No limos for these boys!

I’m always happy to discover a new power pop band, even if new in this case is 1991. Great melodies, wonderfully witty lyrics—Too Much Joy may boast the most appropriate name in rock history, besides Joan Jett that is. “A great idea when we were smashed”—that’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about, and Too Much Joy brings a big jug of red wine to the party. I will continue to love “Nothing on My Mind” so long as I continue to draw breath, and I think you’ll love it too. So give it a listen. And join the band and yours truly in singing, “To create you must destroy/Smash a glass and cry Too Much Joy.” Je t’aime le rock and roll!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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