22 Apr, 2013

The Men – “New Moon”

The MenThe Men are moving fast. They exploded onto the scene with 2011’s Leave Home, their second LP, and the first that saw wide release. At the time, The Men made rock music that was reduced to its most primal elements. Guitar noise, howls, and a general dearth of hooks left songs sounding as though they could spin apart at any moment, and one of the chief pleasures of that album was the manners in which the songs both fulfilled and subverted that sense. However, in a move that few could have predicted around that album’s release, The Men have grown vastly more mannered, tame even. Of course, “tame” here is in about as relative a sense as that word can be possibly be intended, and little on New Moon sounds like it could get mainstream radio play, but at the rate The Men are developing, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to find them with a Black Keys style crossover hit a couple of years from now. Last year’s Open Your Heart was an enormous step up from Leave Home in terms of songcraft, even boasting the acoustic, hooky single “Candy,” a relatively shocking move given that “acoustic” and “hooky” are perhaps the two words used least in descriptions of Leave Home, right up there with “tasteful” or “cute.” But beyond just “Candy,” Open Your Heart showed a band with a deep love and respect for the frightening, volcanic elements of rock learning to focus that into songs which retained the gut-punching, visceral nature of their early work while adding things like, you know, choruses and vaguely comprehensible, non-screamed vocals.

And now here in 2013 with New Moon, their third LP in as many years, their transition from Brooklyn troglodytes of the highest order to college-radio friendly roots-punkers keeps rolling right along. There were tastes of what was to come on Open Your Heart. The lazy strumming of “Candy,” the demonic blues inflections of “Animal,” the very title of “Country Song,” all suggested a band with an affinity for the beat-down blue collar identity of those genres, an identity not all that far removed from the profoundly working class punk they originally espoused. And now, with New Moon, that fixation has come to a head, and The Men have created something rare in today’s musical landscape, a truly excellent blue collar rock album, done with verve and deep integrity. Too often, the alliance of rock and roots music leads to arena-ready bastardization or po-faced earnestness. Here, The Men avoid both, delivering songs that sometimes flatten listeners and sometimes are content to amiably, drunkenly shamble along, with a messiness and vitality often absent from the major strains amphitheater-filling, festival headlining modern country/blues/folk rock. Equally important though, is that they deliver their message without pretension, thereby avoiding the equally deadly traps of Uncle Tupelo-style revivalism, fetishism, and genre-appropriating pastiche that befall so many of their contemporaries on the indie rock side of things. Above all else, The Men on New Moon sound exactly like themselves, and they seem comfortable as can be with that.

The album kicks off with “Open the Door,” a slow, hazy, drunken intro driven by piano and acoustic guitar, but jumps right back into more familiar territory with “Half Angel/Half Light,” a track that merges The Men’s clanging punk rock with a decidedly country sensibility. Acoustic guitars again figure heavily, but this time they’re behind a cloud of distortion and augmented by a wah-heavy electric. The vocals are as clear and direct as they’ve ever been with this band, but we’re still given an immensely pleasurable hit of messiness from the slurred gang vocals on the chorus. “Without a Face” follows, and its uptempo, guitar attack comes as close to The Men of old as anything on this album, though the vocals again reject throat-destroying howls in favor of melody, and a harmonica even crops up around the edges. Up next is “The Seeds,” and its acoustic strumming and languid, even resigned pace recall “Candy.” The subject material covered on the album isn’t far from their previous work, full of yearning for distant lovers, dreams of a better life, alcohol. But instead of the rage of the past, there’s an acceptance of the unpleasantness and a tenderness and maturity missing from their past work. This is on full display in the lovely, Crazy Horse indebted, distortion dripping love song “I Saw Her Face,” and the wistful, even delicate largely instrumental “High and Lonesome” (as appropriate a title as could be imagined).

New Moon‘s second half leaves some of the folkier affectations behind in its embrace of hard-charging rock, made abundantly clear by the one-two punch of “The Brass” and “Electric,” two of the fastest, most aggressive tracks on the record. “The Brass” especially recalls earlier Men, and is the only track here where the fuzz, aggression, and atmosphere threaten to overcome the songcraft. It’s certainly not lesser in any way, but it is beyond a doubt the most guttural, unpolished track here, and ensures we remember the band’s past as well as consider their wide open future. “Electric,” serves as sort of a counterpoint to “The Brass,” similarly hard-charging, but where “The Brass” makes its bones on distortion and atmosphere above all else, “Electric” is polished, hooky, and addictive, not far removed from recent work by Japandroids. “I See No One” continues the second side trend of harder rocking material, but we’re also given a fascinating respite on “Bird Song.” Built on an indelible electric piano chord progression, the song piles on harmonica, slide guitar positively reminiscent of the Allman Brothers, and laconic vocals for a thrillingly idiosyncratic, whisky-drunk slice of summery, mid-tempo roots rock. It’s a definite highlight, and also the type of song it would be inconceivable for this band to be making just two short years ago.

Closing things out are another short, punchy rocker, “Freaky,” and the album’s longest song, “Supermoon.” Another major departure, “Supermoon” throws in krautrock and old-school psychedelia at the eleventh hour, and further confirms the degree to which this band has acted as a sort of genre sponge, taking in innumerable influences while maintaining a sound that is unmistakably theirs. “Supermoon” also gives us a bit of the barely controlled chaos of 2011 Men, though this time with a feel more indebted to Crazy Horse than Suicide. If your affinity for the Men is based around the danger inherent to the band, the feeling that things might fall apart at any moment, the howls and screams and random stabs of distortion, then New Moon might leave you a bit cold. But for anyone with affection for genuine, organic collisions of punk and Americana, from the CCR indebted Minutemen to Husker Du covering The Byrds, New Moon hits on just the right proportion of Johnny Thunders to Tom Petty, and is certainly one of the finest rock releases of the year so far.

Review by Ben Klibaner.

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