The Men New Moon(Sacred Bones) Buy it from Insound
If you were a fan of last year’s Open Your Heart, when you push “play” on New Moon, you might think that you started the wrong album by accident, and upon seeing that you are definitely listening to The Men, you still might think that this is a different band called The Men. Seriously. Try it. If I hadn’t just told you all of that, you totally would have succumbed.
In my book, that’s a good thing. Open Your Heart, a punk album with a soft spot for melodies, was one of 2012’s best albums. That the same band can put out an album that sounds more like Americana music or heartland rock with elements of noise and hardcore just one year later is pretty impressive in and of itself. That the album can song for song, equal Open your Heart is extremely impressive. The country-tinged guitar and the piano of Open The Door make for a fun, light-hearted adventure that still allows the group to show off their musical chops—there’s a pretty good guitar solo in here!—and their versatility at the same time. It is far from indicative of the whole album, but that it sounds so unlike The Men as we know them but also still shows you exactly what they are all about is what makes it a memorable opening.
Half Angel Half Light is faster, and while it maintains an acoustic guitar, it also introduces a heavily distorted, wah-wah guitar in the background, giving the song a light shoe-gaze feel while propelling the band firmly into the punk territory. The Men have long been compared to the Replacements, but the distorted Americana of New Moon has far more in common with Neil Young & Crazy Horse. The Men, like The Replacements, let their melodies do the talking and work on the fringes of genre barriers, but one listen to I Saw Her Face, with its mention of that special place/where the sky is blue, reaching out over the crunches of an electric guitar reminds you of Neil Young’s go-to on everything from Cinnamon Girl to most of the tracks on last year’s Psychedelic Pill. Throw in the Americana sound and it’s hard not to think about the other Neil Young & Crazy Horse album from last year, Americana.
Also like Neil Young, particularly in his grungiest days, New Moon’s songs are Noisy with a capital N. Whether that noise comes from harmonica (on Without a Face) or production (as on The Seeds, whose monotonous leveling turns a would-be country ballad into an anti-serenade reminiscent of Saccharine Trust), it’s clear that The Men are working hard to tread new ground, and though they often go a bit too far—this album sounds poorly engineered as often as it sounds like artistic use of lo-fi—there’s always a treat to be found hidden in the mix.
With each track, The Men are making more and more of a statement. No matter how low you turn the volume on the blistering guitar showcase I Saw Her Face, the song sounds loud. But every time you think this is their noisy album, they throw you off with a heartfelt country song. It’s a fascinating tug of war, but it’s also very frustrating structurally. The album progresses with almost no self-awareness whatsoever, randomly swinging between two polarities without much motivation. The songs do transition with short interludes of the band recording New Moon, but this is more of a trick than it is of any help; maybe if we understand that this album is an impromptu jam for The Men, its swings will make more sense, but the interludes are too short and not frequent enough to suggest a narrative or awareness, inhibiting our ability to make sense of an album that is already difficult to grasp in the first place. One could argue that they were included to make the album feel more like a mixtape than an album, as they emphasize the lack of cohesiveness and New Moon itself is a boiling pot of ideas more than it is a unified artistic statement, but the awkward transitions aren’t given a chance to matter, so they are distracting far more than they are thought provoking.
Despite the poor transitions, it’s fascinating to hear a punchy number like I See No One followed up by the keys, harmonica, and slide guitar of Bird Song, and it’s even better to hear the piano be used as forcefully as it is in the album’s most abrasive tune, The Brass, which pulsates with fuzzy cymbal crashes and sees Ben Greenberg spitting out lyrics like a manifesto.
In fact, every song incorporates something new into a familiar mix, and it never backfires. New Moon shows The Men, who have always been admired for their ability to pull such diverse influences but held back for their lack of originality, expanding their horizons and coming into their own. They are paradoxically becoming increasingly calm as they reach their noisiest and most musically eclectic heights yet, and they seemed to have reached the point where sounding like so many different groups has become sounding like none of them. Sure, they will sound like Neil Young here and The Replacements there and Tom Petty over there, but look across the discography and there is not anyone left. It’s a shame that to prove that The Men packaged together these great songs so haphazardly, but behind questionable production and a display of versatility that skews towards over-adventurousness, New Moon is proof positive that sometimes all you need is a collection of good songs to make a pretty good album. Throw in a couple great ones, such as Supermoon and The Bird Song, which can take their place near the top of The Men’s discography (especially with their originality), and you have a very good album. End that very good album with I’d like to listen to that, get more of a handle on it, and we have reason to expect that the next one will be even better.4 March, 2013 - 04:54 — Forrest Cardamenis