Revisting Citizen King’s “Mobile Estates”
There are few albums I would ever consider to be required listening for anyone getting a history lesson on Milwaukee music; in fact, there are probably only a handful that from front to back, make an impression on me as completely depicting the music landscape in the city at the time they were released. However, if you really want a primer on Milwaukee music in the late 90’s, Citizen King’s Warner Bros. debut, 1999’s “Mobile Estates” is absolutely mandatory. My mom actually bought this album, thanks in part to it’s placement on Malcolm in the Middle’s first episode, as well as some local airplay (which we’ll get to later). The album was on our shelf for years, until I began discovering hip hop, as well as discovering local music. I was already late to discovering “Mobile Estates” as a teenager, but listening back to it now, the album still holds up to this day. Let’s get into why this album was (and still is) such an anomaly.
First, let’s talk about where Milwaukee music (and really where Citizen King) was headed in 1999. While hip hop dominated radio, it was basically nonexistent whatever you would call the Milwaukee live music “scene” back then. Citizen King was one of the few acts with a hip hop-influenced sound that was able to break out and gain a following for their live shows. Luckily, Milwaukee native Speech from Arrested Development found the band, and ultimately produced some tracks for them on their “Brown Bag” LP. After another EP, a tour with Fishbone, and a performance at South By Southwest (according to Wikipedia), major-label subsidiaries and eventually Warner Bros. came calling. Their major-label debut, “Mobile Estates” would come out in 1999.
In terms of overall sound, “Mobile Estates” is nothing like the EPs or the “Brown Bag” LP that preceded it. Whether it was taking additional time to create the songs, a maturation of the band, an intervention by Warner Brothers, or some combination of all three, Citizen King doesn’t sound like the same band as it’s previous releases. The same elements of hip-hop, funk, punk, and blues are there, but there are also pieces of psychedelic music and rave culture that really push the album over the edge. Vocally, Matt Sims (or Mt. Sims depending on who you talk to) really began rapping on the album, with a lyrical style that fits when you hear it, but feels something like a madlib when you hear it word for word. Milwaukee has always had an affinity for music with an avant-garde take (see Violent Femmes, Plasticland, The Fatty Acids), but this felt like that on a major level. Citizen King brought a certain flavor of Milwaukee weird to the world, and the world responded kindly.
The real significance, however, is the local exposure that single “Better Days (And The Bottom Drops Out)” received given the musical climate at the time. Of course, having the major label attached to it helped significantly, but Citizen King was able to break through to top-40 radio (where my mom first heard it) at a time when the only notable local music was played strictly by WMSE. We’re not just talking one station, here either; WKTI, WMYX, and more had the song in their rotation. The music scene in Milwaukee was literally nothing compared to what it is today, and legally streaming and sharing music on the internet was still a few years down the line for the most part, yet the single was able to break through.
Infamy would arrive, however, when the song was featured on the pilot episode, as well as the last episode, of Fox’s “Malcolm In The Middle”. Other placements, including the “Street Sk8er 2” video game, have given the song and video life on YouTube, recently topping the 1 million view mark. A couple other things to note that live on about Citizen King’s legacy, thanks in part to the YouTube comment section:
- The “Better Days” video title on YouTube doesn’t list the band as Citizen King. It definitely is, but it feels weird that Warner Bros. Records, who uploaded the video, didn’t include that, right? Especially because:
- Many people think the song is performed by Sublime. That’s because when the song was at the peak of its popularity on Limewire, someone had incorrectly labeled the band name. Ever since that mishap, the internet has since been 100% accurate and should always be treated as fact. Or something.
- A video for “Long Walk Home” was shot and then shelved. It hasn’t been confirmed, but you’d expect it to be somewhere in a Warner Bros. library, maybe. It’s hard to top aliens taking over a convenience store anyway.
- Spotify has the wrong artwork for the album. Instead, they currently have the artwork for the “Better Days” single. The collage cover, which is the correct art for the album, also has an outline on the inside detailing what each piece of the image was. I still call the Allen-Bradley Clocktower “The Polish Moon” because of it.