Like R.E.M., the Whigs call Athens, Georgia, home. And like R.E.M., they're Southerners who really don't make much of their Southernism. Sure, there are signs they grew up below the Mason-Dixon Line: frontman Parker Gispert's occasional drawl, gutbucket riffs and epic songs, which sound like they have about 150 years of history behind them. But Mission Control is mostly about the big, bad hooks Gispert and crew generate for nearly 40 solid minutes. Guitars ring like My Morning Jacket's, and Gispert works his way toward a raspy howl that feeds into producer Rob Schnapf's (Beck, Guided by Voices) gleaming overcoat, which boosts poppy songs like "I Got Ideas," "Hot Bed" and "Like a Vibration." This is glistening indie-rock with the South's seal of approval.
From the title on down, it's clear that What Made Milwaukee Famous's What Doesn't Kill Us belongs to that class of sophomore albums drawn from the sleepless nights, per-diem allowances and busted relationships that go hand in hand with the first few difficult years of life as a full-time touring animal. Besides an overall tone of weary cynicism, nearly every song offers a lyrical clue or two: "Cheap Wine" laments, "I come into your town, all it ever does is bring me down"; "Sultan" cops, "Your only guarantee is your fear of the unknown"; and "For the Birds" sighs, "Hey man, we're in the same rooms, blacking the same blues when we can."
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Well, boo hoo, right? Not necessarily, because the attributes that allowed the quartet to take that step from Austin up-and-comers to Barsuk-underwritten road dogs — keen pop instincts, dense arrangements, principal frontman Michael Kingcaid's constitution-straining sincerity — have survived the transition intact, and the result is a set of songs as cathartic to listen to as they must be for the band to perform night after night. Strikingly similar to Queen in spots, the album is a good deal heavier than 2006 debut Trying to Never Catch Up — indeed, the murky power-chord volley that begins opener "Blood, Sweat & Fears" might fool listeners into thinking they've somehow purchased the new Sword album by mistake — and "Self-Destruct" and "Resistance St." likewise build to fearsome crescendos. All that effort eventually pays off, too: What Doesn't Kill Us lightens up toward the end, as the rollicking, Violent Femmes-like "To Each His Own" twists some of John Lennon's better-known "Imagine" lyrics into a steely manifesto of persistence from a band seasoned enough to know that packing it in now would be all too easy.— Michael Gallucci and Chris Gray