Album Review: New Moon – The Men
I know this question may seem a bit absurd but, at any point last year, did you ever try Googling Brooklyn’s The Men? Trust me when I tell you it wasn’t easy. Not only have numerous bands shared some semblance of the name over the years (MEN, The Men, Menz, etc.), but one also had to sift through movies with similar titles... and a slew of websites offering services which I need not explain to the male gender. Of course that was all before their last LP, Open Your Heart, put them on the indie-music map, raising their profile considerably, and making the geniuses over at Mountain View, California recognize the band as its own sovereign music entity. These days The Men's own website is the top search result offered when you insert their name into the Google machine, which basically proves dreams do come true.
Internet priority isn’t the only thing which has changed for the band since they last dropped a record; there have been lineup changes, an increased level of expectation, and a continuing musical evolution. As far as the lineup changes are concerned, founding member/bassist/all around nice guy (at least, so it seemed during the conversations I had with him last spring) Chris Hansell recently left the band. In a recent interview with the Chicago Reader Mark Perro (guitars/vocals) discussed the split, and essentially chalked it up to Hansell having his own ideas, and wanting to spread his wings elsewhere. While there didn’t seem to be much bitterness in the interview the relationship between Hansell and his former band does seem to be somewhat frayed.
With new band-member Ben Greenberg in the fold The Men had to engage in the always-difficult task of following-up a critically acclaimed record. Those of you who have been onboard since the release of the band’s debut, Immaculada, are no doubt already aware of The Men’s gradual shift in sound over the course of their first three records. What started as a post-punk noise outfit has grown more melodic, even softer, over the years, a fact which has surely contributed to their appeal. Well the band’s latest album, New Moon, continues the band’s sonic shift even further... perhaps a bit too far.
I was neither shocked nor turned off by the warm and inviting piano which kicks off New Moon’s opener, Open The Door. I like to consider myself a very open-minded music listener, and I am quite partial to the majestic timbre of the piano, so the classic rock/Americana vibe of Open The Door (which is a good track in its own right) was something I could easily tap my foot to and enjoy. I did, however, wonder how the youth was going to respond to this artistic direction, as they can be a fickle bunch. The AM radio feel continues with the album’s second tune, Half Angel Half Light, a track with some overt Tom Petty leanings (it’s mainly in the nasal vocal delivery. Having said that, Petty has a lot of imitators out there), and slightly worn arrangement choices. All in all I wouldn’t say New Moon begins with a misstep, but it certainly doesn't put it’s best foot forward (this last sentence was for all of the podophiliacs).
The album manages to pick up a little bit with the slightly menacing energy of Without A Face- a song which actually sounds like it could have been a really solid cut, though unfortunately it’s plagued by some awful and incessant harmonica playing (everything about the mouth harp on Without A Face is a disaster)- but things don’t really improve for New Moon until I Saw Her Face saunters out as the fifth track. Back in June of 2012, when I saw The Men twice in a twelve hour span, both of their sets were started by I Saw Her Face, so I can’t really tell if I enjoy this song on its own merits anymore, or if the nostalgia of NXNE 2012 is actually clouding my perception of the tune (nostalgia, of course, being my all-time favorite drug). Be that as it may, it reminds me of The Men I so adored, so we are going to mark it as a strike, not an eight.
Thankfully, New Moon finally gains some momentum in its second half: The Men channel their fondness for country music into a lovely lap-steel driven instrumental ballad on High And Lonesome, and The Brass is a kinetic blast of rusty bombast (which arrives about five tracks later than it should’ve but, hey, better late than never, right?). And then there is Electric... Electric is a fucking tremendous track, which I have been practically obsessed with ever since I heard it live last year. The song embodies everything which is truly great about The Men; it’s loud, reckless, and comes of as if it’s held together by sheer will... it’s a shame there aren’t more songs on New Moon like Electric (which you should expect to show up on the Best Songs of 2013 list).
Once Electric is over there are a few more classic rock ditties left, including Bird Song which, like High And Lonesome, also happens to effectively use lap-steel to elevate the track (the organ doesn't hurt, nor does the fact that they finally figured out how to properly record a harmonica). The record does try to end things on a slightly more animate note, as Freaky entertains while raising the tempo, and New Moon’s eight minute closer, Supermoon, builds up some fantastic tension with a near-apocalyptic crush of sludgy guitars, and indecipherable vocals, a la MC5. Supermoon manages to frustrate me once again as a listener; it’s obvious that somewhere within The Men lies an adventurous group of musicians who can summon serious voodoo when they so choose, but who instead would rather record throwbacks. For the record, Supermoon kills.
After reading my review for The Men’s New Moon even I can see that it’s a bit jumbled, and lacking in focus. I sat for a few moments, trying to isolate what the problem with it is, before it struck me: my review is actually a perfect reflection of New Moon. There are moments during its dozen tracks where The Men manage to remind you what made them a great band, but unfortunately there are too many instances when they insist on being something else- something less. I wouldn’t go as far as declaring this a bad record, but I will admit to being disappointed by it.