Listening to Chicago’s The Thin Man has always been for me as much a visual experience as an aural one. Live, of course, frontman Kennedy Greenrod cuts an imposing figure: the definition of lanky, thrusting his chin forward to spit at the microphone, elbows punching out at odd angles from his accordion. But on record, The Thin Man’s songs conjure a world designed by a committee of Bertolt Brecht, Charles Dickens, and Al Capone. It’s a world where the greasy heart in question alludes not only to a lover’s dark motives or the main intersection of a dank metropolis, but the organ itself, still throbbing in a bucket of giblets, bloody and tactile.
Greasy Heart, the band’s third full-length, is the best yet at drawing you, or yanking you, into its dangerous world to the point where you want to tear up your ticket home. In fact, Greenrod plays tour guide on the very first line of “My City”: “Taking the bus to the greasy heart of my city” and the ride doesn’t stop for 40 minutes. The record is full of action, from the white-knuckle ride of “Molly O” to the playful jerk of “An Undertaker Muses…”, built on the aggressive rhythm section of bassist Jason LaBrosse and drummer Mike McGrath, and Greenrod’s aggressive penchant for verbs. The characters inhabiting the lyrics aren’t tangled up in solipsism; they “clean toilets to bring you wine” and “fix you where you need fixin’”.
The musical parentage of The Thin Man includes gypsy, punk, western country, and good ole barroom rock. “Baby Please” gives glimpses of each in a terse two and a half minutes, featuring Saleem Dhamee’s snaky lead guitar lines, and some of Greenrod’s most startling observations. Feel how hard it is to lift up your jaw after hearing “Somebody once said that / Time can be your friend / Just like Hitler, he loved children”, timed perfectly with the song’s backbeat. Its shock never loses impact for its delightful naughtiness, just as later, “I saw you with him in the park just yesterday / In matching tracksuits, it wasn’t that cute” always tickles.
“Molly O” sets itself up as “One more hard luck story / One more tale full of woe”, but it’s anything but. The hard-driving centerpiece of Greasy Heart gets its power from the snarling repetition of every fourth line, in which an abusive relationship is dangled over an uncertain resolution. Its characters could be the chambermaid and handsome banker of “My City”, the tracksuit-wearing couple of “Baby Please”, but most definitely the “unsafe sex practitioners” of “An Undertaker Muses ”. After a brutal fight, “He’s whistling as he exits / She’s lying on the floor / He thinks he won’t pay the piper / Cos he’s the Law, he’s the Law, he’s the Law.” The song doesn’t excuse, condone, denounce, or pity its players—it gives them to you straight, letting you monitor your own adrenaline levels while you choose your own best, or most plausible ending, “Maybe she’ll trash the apartment / Pack a bag, get a bus, leave town / Maybe she’ll get a pistol and lay her man in the ground / Maybe she’ll just sit back and wait / For her man to come back around.”
But if your concern is that there’s too much grease and not enough heart here, I should explain “Marching Through the House of Love with Dirty Boots”, an Old World, red wine and soft cheese dripping litany of devotion: “I’m gonna stand on the beaches and curse all the waves / I’m gonna capture the insects and have a parade / I’m gonna drink with the blind man and fall down his stairs / I’m gonna teach all the starlings to sing out your name / We’re gonna celebrate the day you were made.” How in hell can you say no to that?