When the Men first appeared, their name sounded like a bit of a lark – an ironic, reductive pose of a name, a parody of a certain type of mindless, boozy masculinity. Their music immediately undercut that stereotype. Their early recordings were complex, hazy, abstract slices of distorted, feedback-heavy art-rock. Masculine music, maybe, but of a thoroughly modern and complicated sort.
Surprisingly though, over the course of their last two albums the Brooklyn band have been progressively adding more classic influences to their sound, to the point now where a more straightforward interpretation of their name doesn’t seem as off-base. Their latest album, New Moon, was recorded out in the hills, and finds the Men incorporating a more mellow, tuneful approach into their sound that draws heavily on classic and country-flavoured influences from Tom Petty to Creedence Clearwater Revival to the Band. It’s a pretty far cry from the jagged, hit-you-in-the-gut noise that they cut their teeth on.
That puts the Men in an interesting, if dangerous place. It’s to their great credit as songwriters that New Moon is largely successful in balancing these disparate influences, even if it does leave you wondering who exactly these Men are. The album avoids too many jarring changes of pace by putting most of the more classic material up front, switching to a faster, more direct attack on the album’s second side. More importantly, the songcraft stands out in both guises, from the sweet twang of “The Seeds” to the frenetic, catchy punch of “Electric”.
But it’s one thing though to make changes to your style in the safety of a log cabin recording studio; it can be quite another trying to incorporate new, different material into a live set in front of fans brought up on something else entirely. That’s doubly the case when your new material draws on classic rock influences that your old fans might regard as, well… a bit naff. Tom Petty might be a very fine songwriter, but I doubt he’s that welcome on the jukebox in the underground venues the Men are used to playing in.
The Garage in London’s Highbury Corner is just one of those venues – a smallish, dark upstairs room with a single bar cramped up along the back wall, its patrons thick with skinny jeans and clever haircuts. The Men, when they slowly amble on stage after a rather excellent introductory set by Parquet Courts, cut an unruly and contradictory set of figures these days, which seems to nicely reflect their sonic divisions. Half the band look like classic Williamsburg hipsters; the other half look like roadies for AC/DC.
Throughout their show at the Garage, these split sides of the Men’s personality are very apparent. Although material from New Moon makes up the majority of the set, the lack of a lap steel (a prominent instrument on the album) and an understandable desire to keep up the crowd’s energy levels means that emphasis is given to the band’s experimental and skuzz-rock interests.
It’s a good move; in this setting, the band are at their best when testing the decibel levels. The show opens and closes with lengthy workouts of squalling guitars, while “Turn It Around” and “Open Your Heart” are balls-out highlights of sweaty rock riffs and thunderous drums. The faster tracks from New Moon are also played at a full throttle, careering pace, to the delight of an energetic little mosh pit at the front.
Even the more classic rock-influenced tracks from New Moon are played with more aggression than on the album. Even so, the mosh pit seems uncertain when faced with the wistful harmonies of “Half Angel Half Light” or the melodic groove of “Bird Song”. In the context of this set the easygoing, self-consciously ‘country’ track “Candy” feels even more of a novelty item than it did on “Open Your Heart - it’s enjoyable in a slurred, silly kind of way, but the crowd at the front, at least, seems a little nonplussed.
And therein lies the dichotomy for the Men. They’ve proven themselves adept chameleons, able to take on a wide range of genres and re-purpose them to suit their own ends and interests. But the wider the range of influences they incorporate, the more diluted or confused their own identity, or their own fans, might become. It’s a tricky balance and they could soon find themselves in zugzwang: forced to make a move, but faced with downsides - alienated fans and confused critics in all directions. We will see. On the evidence of this performance, the Men are content for now to play it fast and loose, and whatever the future holds, there are good, sweaty, hairy, boozy, rock and roll times to be had right now. Bemoaning the security trench separating the crowd from the stage, at one point in the gig, guitarist Ben Greenberg says “we wish you were closer”. He’s not the only one.