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New Music Discovery: The Men

March 12, 2013

Last week an article in L Magazine caught my eye, “On the Resurgence of Brooklyn Guitar Bands.” The magazine’s music writer Lauren Beck alludes to how the demise of guitar-based rock has been predicted (over and over again, it seems to me) but several bands in Brooklyn are proving (once again) that the guitar’s demise was greatly exaggerated.  The first band she cites to illustrate her point? Punk rockers The Men.  Here’s what Lauren had to say about The Men’s just-released album, New Moon:

New Moon, the follow-up to last year’s breakthrough Open Your Heart, begins with a casually twangy romp—“when I hear the guitars playing,” Mark Perro sings as clear as day—and ends with an 8-minute thrasher that sinks into noise. The ground covered in between is wide, varied and invigorating.

In addition to L, The Men seem to be popping up just about everywhere.  They were interviewed by SPIN and Consequence of Sound, kicked off a national tour with a show at Bowery Ballroom, and, as mentioned, released a new album – their third in three years and fourth in under five years – which was reviewed by everyone from Pitchfork to the A.V. Club to NME.  Add it all up: Guitars + Brooklyn + lots of positive buzz = the possibility that I had found a new favorite band.

On Sunday I picked up New Moon on vinyl at Music Matters, immediately used the download code to add the mp3s to my iTunes library, and have since given the album a few (admittedly distracted) listens.  Without giving it the attention it deserves, I can’t say definitively where I stand on the album, except to state that while it hasn’t blown me away, it hasn’t turned me off either. I suspect that I will land somewhere around Jason Heller’s A.V. Club review, giving New Moon a solid B+.  Which begs the question, why am I even discussing this album or this band at all?

The answer lies in the album’s 8-minute album closer, “Supermoon.”  It’s impossible to write anything about New Moon – even a 50 word blurb like Lauren Beck’s – without mentioning Supermoon.  Unlike the rest of the album, this song feels like it was thrust straight of out Seattle in the late ’80s / early ’90s.  If someone had played Supermoon for me and told me that it was a deep cut that I’d never heard before from [famous grunge band x], I’d easily believe them.  Supermoon is raw and authentic and everything I want a sludgy powerful guitar-heavy fuzz-band to sound like.  And yet it is only one song, only 8 minutes out of a 47-minute album.  Nothing else on this album comes anywhere near giving me that same feel. The way it stands apart from an otherwise pretty-good-but-vanilla rock album is precisely the reason why it is mentioned in every review.

There had to be something I was missing.  It makes no sense that a band could have this song in them but not release it except for in this isolated instance.  As it turns out, after reading a little more about The Men (I didn’t actually read any of the reviews until after listening to the album) I discovered that my grunge radar was spot-on.  Supermoon was a throwback to The Men’s prior sound, especially as it’s heard on their critically-acclaimed 2012 album Open Your Heart.  As Heller tells it:

Open Your Heart is, among many other things, a love letter to SST-era guitar rock; New Moon is looser and less keen to be pinned down. Barring the overloaded closer, “Supermoon”—an eight-minute, Canned Heat-meets-Hawkwind freakout that remains the disc’s only link to The Men’s early output—New Moon bobs on a grassy, easygoing Americana vibe.  […] a homey, gut-warming batch of tunes that erratically juggle nostalgia, craft, and ass-kicking abandon.

“A love letter to SST-era guitar rock.”  I’ll drink to that.  SST Records is the independent label that in the ’80s released albums from Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., the Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, and the Minutemen.  Yes, this is what Supermoon sounded like.  Is it possible that Open Your Heart is more of that sound?

The consensus is a resounding “yes.”  Nearly every review of New Moon references how The Men have changed their sound, going, as Pitchfork put it, “a little Crazy Horse, gradually easing their squalling sludgefeasts into a classic-rock comfort zone.”  The Men have explicitly noted that Neil Young was an influence on the sound of their new album, while Open Your Heart has been described “Like The Replacements doing dead lifts with the Buzzcocks at the post-punk gym.” By all accounts, in the span of under 3 years, The [ever-changing] Men have released 3 albums that took them from hard-rocking punk band to alt-rocking SST-throwback to alt-country Americana.  In the blink of an eye the little boys have all grown up.  Depending on where you stand, this can be a positive or a negative change.  Despite never having heard Open Your Heart, I already like it better than its successor.

So how did Supermoon wind up on New Moon anyway? Sarah Grant of CoS finds that out when, in her interview, she tells the band “My favorite song on New Moon is the last one, the eight-minute behemoth ‘Supermoon’. It’s the distinctive hardcore track on the album — different from the rest — and the guitar solo is just great.” I couldn’t have said it better Sarah.  Co-lead singer Mark Perro tries to explain, saying “‘Supermoon’ really began as just a riff. We just jammed on it for it a little bit and then recorded it in one take”; bassist, producer and “compositional partner” Ben Greenberg expands in an honest way:

That was also the night we made mushroom tea. Wasn’t really a big story. I had words that I was working on, or at least some words for that song. We recorded it after one or two times through, so the structure was there, but when the song idea gets out of your own head, it always becomes something very different. And with “Supermoon”, we just wanted to see where it went. We wanted it to sound loose and free [Perro  interrupted: “That’s also because we were tripping”] … And there was an actual supermoon the night we recorded that song, so it was on our minds. It was really cool.

All that work, disappearing into the far reaches of the Catskills for weeks to create a new album, and if not for mushroom tea and “an actual supermoon” the world would have missed out on a phenomenal 8 minutes of music.  All because The Men decided to grow up. To be fair, I should note again that New Moon is a perfectly fine album; I’m convinced that I will be a fan of this band.  After all, it’s not as if the Men have lost all of their edge (many reviews compare some of the music on New Moon to Dinosaur Jr.), just that they’ve mellowed out a bit.  Words like “melodic evolution” are ones that sound nice in theory, but can be deadly to a punk rock band.  The Men aren’t a punk rock band, or at least they aren’t one anymore.  But they sure can make some serious kick-ass rock music when they set (or in this case alter) their minds to it.  Check out Supermoon below … while I go out and buy Open Your Heart.

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