Sung as a rollicking kind of shanty, The Winking Badge opens with frontman Brock Ginther snarling out these words —
“Oh, western medicine relies on the fact that I do my dancing private, Jerry
Once, in the bathroom, I was attacked by the insect-urge to be higher than the
Slime in the chatroom's hand-held nets, yours for the barter like the transformed eddy
No rush coming from a barroom bet, no use running from a constant, scanning headlight.”
— and as guitar, bass, and drums crash in, it is clear we're going for a ride. The Portland trio Midwestern Medicine play a busy, bustling, bubblingly intelligent sort of retro-/proto-punk, with dashes of English psych-rock and American country (and no pop-punk or hardcore). Their new album, a 12-song dealie called The Winking Badge, would be a daunting meal if it weren't cooked so well and sliced up so nice. While its tracks, many of them 90-120 seconds long, whiz by, they're remarkably rewarding when you follow closely. Frontman Brock Ginther's lyrics function like rich little vignettes, with more depth than you'd find in most area poetry collections, and the nimble rhythm section (McCrae Hathaway on bass and Brian Saxton on drums, both from the rock 'n' roll trio Whale Oil) keeps the whole affair speeding along, like actors in a vaudeville skit.
Musically, for me anyway, the album conjures stuff like the Kinks, Soft Boys, Volcano Suns, Gun Club, early Wire, Swell Maps, etc. Probably a few major touchstones I'm missing; some of this sounds eerily familiar in a distant way I can't put my finger on, but there's definitely a cerebral quality that flows as a crosscurrent through those groups that's also present here. It belongs, like most music these days, to a bygone era, but not the same era that most music aspires to belong to. Nothing drones, nothing grooves. No ink is wasted on love. Little seems made for dancing, but it's energizing all the same.
This is all well-captured in the production (the album was recorded at Big Nice Studios outside of Providence), which makes The Winking Badge sound punchy and crisp. Ginther and company pack so much content into these songs that I don't catch on the first time around, it makes me feel like playing it again is a natural decision, just like that random Homestead Records tape I bought at a record show in 1999.
All of it makes for a sound that's really hard to find these days, particularly in Portland. Ginther's lyrics are too artfully composed to be outwardly cutting, but many of these songs seem to be smart, sometimes scathing commentary on social phenomena like music consumption ("Puppy Dreams"), performativity ("Insults"), dilettantism ("We Like To Rock"), cops (“The Winking Badge”) and maybe even himself ("Everything I Have to Offer"). The jittery "Locker Combinations" sends up the malaise of a mainstream upbringing gone white-collar — "Stay home, sleep in, learning your own skin / learn how to shed it and save it and throw it away" goes the song's outro bridge. On "Insults," Ginther takes on what may be internet outrage culture (at least by my read). "Open your eyes to the anger, and then incorporate, a little hate when you're called on to rate what a peer is performing."
It's an anxious, heady, smart as shit rock album with carefully crafted aesthetics, and I'm about it. It seems like a peculiar joy to see them pull it off live — partly because I wanna see what tone they play in (are they sincere, or, as Ginther sings, "grinnin' with a well-placed wink?"), but mostly because Midwestern Medicine are one of those bands that seem to deploy every ounce of energy they have in service of the material, leaving no room for idleness or doubt. That's good medicine indeed.
The Winking Badge by Midwestern Medicine | with Lemon Pitch + Johnny Cremains | Dec 13 | Thu 8 pm | Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St, Portland | $8-10 | midwesternmedicine.bandcamp.com/album/the-winking-badge