Almost half-way

Almost half-way into the Mr. T Experience's fourth full-length release on the Lookout label, Love Is Dead, the band dishes up a tune called "Dumb Little Band," which documents the ups and downs of life for this East Bay three piece. As with most of the songs written by MTX founder, Dr. Frank, this one contains its fair share of humorous insight. Observe Frank's references to his former label mates Green Day:

"Our friends are all busy with their own affairs becoming punk rock millionaires. They're taping their live album at the Hollywood Bowl, we're taping our flyers to the telephone pole."

While on the surface, though, the song is something of a throwaway, its narrative about recent personnel changes points to greater shift that has been occurring parallel to the roster mutation of the past three years. This concurrent change in the music of the Mr. T Experience might be called by someone as analytical as this reviewer "The Dumbing Down of MTX." This theory tracks the phenomenon in which the geeky, yet charming and distinctive sound of the Mr. T Experience has been transformed into a simpler, less textured, and less engaging form of pop punk. Granted, such a treatment of the band's chronology may lean far too heavily toward pretention, but academic joking aside, it is interesting to note the toll that ten years of recording ?? a decade during which many of the band's indie punk peers have leapt to stardom, or at least scored major label deals ?? has taken on these inventors of the East Bay Sound.

Actually, Dr. Frank is the only original inventor left in the band. He formed MTX in 1986 with two fellows named Jon Von and Alex, on guitar and drums, respectively. By the turn of the decade, original bassist Byron was out, new-guy Aaron was in, and the band hit its stride with its first Lookout album, Making Things with Light.

The four years of change that culminate with Love Is Dead began back in 1992, when Jon Von left the Mr. T Experience. The news that Jon had split was initially disturbing. MTX aficionados appreciated not only his rhythm guitar complement to Frank's leads, but also his backup vocals and occasional songwriting credits (JV was responsible for "End of the Ramones" as well as that holiday well-wisher, "Merry Fuckin' Christmas"). But things looked OK for the band when it recorded the finest Mr. T single ever, the Gun Crazy EP, even without the skills of Jon Von.

MTX forged on as a three piece, releasing Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1993, which included the band's first forays into acoustic songs. Although the album fell short of the expectations Frank had set with Gun Crazy, in retrospect it has proven to be a fairly strong album. At the time, however, the new softer sound appeared to foreshadow the end of Mr. T. It wasn't long before Green Day traded in their digs at Lookout for a new home at Reprise, and it seemed as if the quirkiness that defined MTX and Lookout had run out of vitality. By the time Alex finally quit in 1995, Dr. Frank had jokingly taken to calling the band "MTX Starship." With a new drummer named Jym, however, Frank put out a decent seven song EP called The Mr. T Experience and the Women Who Love Them. The band closed out last year with a new single, "Alternative Is Here to Stay," featuring the debut of Joel the bass play er. It is this incarnation of the band that greets 1996 with Love Is Dead.

Amid the continuous fluctuation of band members and record quality, the trademark Mr. T sound has become increasingly smaller. Prior to Jon Von's departure, the MTX sound became more intricate with each release, thanks in part perhaps to the production of one Kevin Army. Army has worked on every Mr. T recording to date. In a 1990 interview in Maximum Rock and Roll, he explained the importance he ascribed to layering sounds to achieve the proper effect for a band, even one as ostensibly simple as Mr. T: "If you've got one guy playing guitar, but you want that nice stereo, spatial kind of thing, you can have him double his guitar track. Or put backup vocals in stereo, or add little touches like a tambourine. Put that hidden keyboard in that no one has to notice but will make you sound more like those '77 recordings." Middle period MTX often had several tiers of guitars. "What you're trying to achieve," said Army of the layering technique in general, "is not to get it to sound like there are five guitars, but like one big guitar."

In addition to Army's meaty production, Mr. T records used to come equipped with mucho solos by Dr. Frank. Considered by many punks to be the bane of formerly good bands, solos were different for the Mr. T Experience. Because the band was geeky from the start within the macho world of punk, Dr. Frank's guitar solos added charm to MTX's distinctive character. Moreover, because the songs often featured a solo guitar following the tune note for note during an intro or bridge, they also highlighted Frank's gift for composing sweet melodies.

With the release of 1992's Milk Milk Lemonade, the Mr. T sound had become increasingly less punk and more rock. The MTX rock guitar era reached its first pinnacle in the overarching rock sound featured in the classical intro to "Book of Revelation, and in the metal-tinged "Master of the Situation." It reached a second pinnacle the following year in the two acoustic tracks on Our Bodies, Ourselves (the acoustic sound being another side of the same rock coin, and definitely not punk).

Since then, however, Mr. T recordings have abandoned both the solos and the larger sound for a consistently more simple, yet less distinctive quality. You could chalk up the transformation to the band's two new, and much younger, members. Jym in particular has noted that he isn't keen on a number of Dr. Frank's older songs, opening the possibility that he's also sour on the older, larger arrangements. Perhaps you could pin it on Kevin Army. Whenever there's been doubt about MTX at Lookout, he's made the case for keeping the band on the label. Maybe that case has included a simpler, presumably more punk, sound in recent days. Or you could give the responsibility to Frank, who's been working on this band for ten years, and understandably may want a change a pace. As he says in a song from last year, "I'm not what I used to be, mostly 'cause I refuse to be."

Whoever's hands are at work here, the unfortunate result on Love Is Dead is that less is not more. Without Frank's guitar leads to shine a deserved spotlight on his melodies, the songs run together by the middle of the record. Moreover, the lower-fi production sounds too commonly indie to stand out the way a Mr. T record should. There are a couple of notable tunes. "Sackcloth and Ashes" gets the album off to a fairly good start. On the tail end, the band offers "I'm Like Yeah, But She's All No," a typically Frank look relationship game playing, anchored by typically Frank (i.e., catchy) chorus. Overall, however, the record is far from essential.

Despite the disappointment of Love Is Dead, fans who are hooked on the East Bay sound thanks to Green Day should seek out material by the Mr. T Experience. Making Things with Light is a good start, and the CD contains several worthwhile bonus cuts. Some folks may argue against Our Bodies, Ourselves, but the CD contains all of the songs from the Gun Crazy EP, plus a number of other good examples of Frank's songwriting ability. Finally, this summer, Lookout will reissue Mr. T's second and third pre-Lookout releases, Night Shift at the Thrill Factory and Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood (on one CD if there's any justice). The effort will be a worthy addition to the historical record of indie pop punk. Give a listen to "At Gilman Street" and see where the East Bay began.