Growing pains

After 11 albums, the Mr. T Experience is starting to abandon the punk-pop sound it pioneered

Alcatraz opens with the bitingly sarcastic yet jangling attack on rock criticism "I Wrote a Book About Rock'n'Roll" -- a tune not unlike the cynical jabs of their inspiration, Mr. Costello ("I use words like 'sobriquet,' 'malaise,' and 'plutocrat' / And I compared the Shaggs to Wittgenstein -- how cool is that?"). Elsewhere, the catchy, squeaky-clean horn section blasts of "Naomi" and the lilting vocal harmony, shimmering organ, and acoustic guitar strums of "Hey Emily" demonstrate the group's penchant for catchy pop -- even with the distortion pedals turned off. "We'll Get By" boasts a cheery guitar chime similar to the chirpy Moog and electric piano overture of the Cars' classic "Bye Bye Love." As a whole, Alcatraz could easily be passed off as a long-lost gem from new wave label Stiff Records.

Compared with the band's earlier, gruff efforts, it's a bold departure. But considering the calculated preparations that went into the making of Alcatraz, the album is also a clever period piece. To prepare for the album, Dr. Frank recalls, "we analyzed the strange wall of noise of Armed Forces, and what goes into it. We tried to figure that out and put it into a couple of songs. We also tried to get an uncomfortable-sounding, awkward '80s power-pop kind of style on a couple of songs too." To achieve the album's textured sound, the group pursued what the singer calls a "method recording" approach. "We tried to put ourselves out of balance by putting us in weird situations to see if anything interesting would happen...we did a lot of experimenting, like turning the heat up in the studio to make an oppressive atmosphere. Just crazy stuff like that. We wanted to do every little thing that would shuffle things around a bit."

Recording Alcatraz with longtime producer-engineer Kevin Army -- who has recorded the lion's share of Lookout's releases and has produced all MTX albums but the second -- the band deliberately aimed for sonic inconsistencies by capturing songs at six different studios throughout the Bay Area. "We wanted to maximize the chances that the songs would come out sounding different from each other," explains Dr. Frank.

He's not a doctor; he just plays one on TV: Dr. Frank, left, and the rest of the Mr. T Experience, Jym and Joel Reader.
He's not a doctor; he just plays one on TV: Dr. Frank, left, and the rest of the Mr. T Experience, Jym and Joel Reader.

Describing his enthusiasm for the album's challenging, retrogressive departure, Army chuckles, "I've done that pop-punk record a lot of times now." It was a change of pace that the engineer welcomed with precise calculation. "Depending on the song, I planned to get us into studios that they would've used back then," the engineer explains, "and using a different guitar sound than we'd used before." This time, Army says, "we were going for a more brittle, Fender amp type of sound."

"We dictated what we recorded, and where, by the size of the room and the equipment at each studio," Dr. Frank explains.

"I'm a real fan of engineering from the '70s and early '80s," says Army, "but I've never had the luxury to choose the appropriate room for each song to represent that sound." Rather than mimicking the effects-drenched sounds of that era's multitrack recordings, Army and MTX focused their energy on harvesting the enduring elements of their favorite records and attempting to discover whether those nostalgic tones could be infused into the current age of pop songwriting. The result is an experiment of studied homage, and in that effort, an ironically bold break from the Mr. T Experience tradition. "I was always aware that the whole thing could blow up in our face," Dr. Frank admits, "but I think we succeeded."

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