I demand a lot from any album. I have impossibly high standards and relish inking my perpetual disappointment. Yet, from the Men, I ask even more. In part, it’s because they feature a member of the legendary (and recently defunct) Pygmy Shrews. In part, it’s because their debut album was so highly overrated. In part, it’s because, for years now, I’ve been calling for an airlift to drop distortion pedals over Brooklyn, and I’m starting to think someone finally did it.
There’s a simple idea behind the Men. The band combines elements of shoegaze with elements of hardcore and ‘70s punk. No doubt they would disagree with this generalization, and to be fair, they do other things too—but the shoegaze-punk collision is what makes the Men the Men. Of course, they aren’t the first band to try this particular subgenre blend (No Age, anyone?) but few bands have done it this well.
Indeed, the Men do sound a bit like No Age, but their approach is different. While No Age usually write punchy, punky songs with manic drumming, the Men take a little more time to explore. On many of the songs on Open Your Heart, they take a single simple idea and turn it over, building it up and teasing it out.
It’s not all lengthy meditations and disquisitions, though. There’s some straight-up pop tunes here, like the raging opener “Turn It Around”. All hooks and overdrive, pedal to the metal, balls to the wall, the track hurtles forth with the zeal of youth. Even the lyrics are classic. This is what a rock song is supposed to sound like. The second track, “Animal”, falls short of its magnetic predecessor, but its snarling rage recalls the Sex Pistols. The guitars wail as the vocals back up a hoarse, roaring lead with melodic singing. The unhurried “Candy” fares less well, with a melody that overshoots ‘catchy’ and lands in ‘annoying.’
The longer tracks are also hit and miss. “Country Song”, in particular, is a bit insulting—we are being asked to spend six minutes listening to a song the band couldn’t even be bothered to name. Nor could they even be bothered to write it; ‘song’ is an overstatement, since it sounds more like a jam than a composition. It’s actually not bad, as far as self-indulgent six-minute instrumental jams go, but it was a better sound when Yo La Tengo tried it 15 years ago.
As a whole, the album sounds more than a little like Yo La Tengo circa 1997 with their sprawling pop manifestos of comforting noise. On the one hand, that’s to say it’s not the most original of records, but on the other, there are worse bands to resemble. Sometimes the Men get it right, as with the relaxed dissonance of “Presence”. The song is lazy in all the right ways with patient plodding drums and hazy guitars. When the bass finally comes in, it’s arresting. On the other hand, tracks like “Oscillation” and “Please Don’t Leave”, though enjoyable at first, wear thin before they’re over.
Likewise, “Open Your Heart” is catchy, but there’s not enough songwriting to sustain it. The aggressive “Cube” fares better with rumbling distorted bass and shrieking feedback. It’s also the shortest track on the album, and even it seems slightly overextended. The closer, “Ex-Dreams”, is a less-than-subtle nod to late 80’s Sonic Youth; even the vocals recall Thurston Moore’s boyish punk charm. Luckily, the Men get this one right, blasting out one of their most exciting songs to date.
At the end of the day, the Men aren’t quite all they’re cracked up to be, but even a bitter cynic like me has to admit, this album is worth a listen. It’s too watered down to stand the test of time, but right now, it hits the spot.
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// Notes from the Road
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