[5 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Men have spent their career distorting what came before, so there’s more than a little bit of a wink in the title of their latest, Tomorrow’s Hits. 2011’s Leave Home and 2012’s Open Your Heart were literal with that distortion, blasting every punk and rock trope from the past 30 years they could get their hands on. Then last year’s New Moon turned that same eye towards classic rock, with some folk and country mixed in. Their last release, the Campfire Songs EP turned their whole sound inside-out, taking the folk base of New Moon and a home recorded lo-fi ethos to extreme in five blurry, bittersweet tunes.
The common thread through these records, even as the sounds changed, was that the band held a funhouse mirror up to what came before and, in doing so, made the reflection theirs. Tomorrow’s Hits splits time between classic sway and punk fury, and the two side are clearly divided, but the band itself seems lost in the middle between these two poles. The band used an honest-to-God studio for this record, and the polish of it brings their chops into light. Somewhere in some of these songs, though, the personality that delivered those chops before is lost.
The album opens with the jangling one-two of “Dark Waltz” and “Get What You Give”. Both songs stretch out on rippling guitars, their hooks sweetened by light distortion and distant piano. If the first of the two casts a longer shadow, it still operates in the same country sweat as “Get What You Want”. These are country-rock tunes that are nicely executed—from the towering solo of “Dark Waltz” to the sweet, rundown chorus of “Get What You Give”—and in that way honor a long classic rock tradition. “Another Night” puts the piano up front and beefs the proceedings up with a horn section straight off of E Street. It’s a lively epic, stretching out over five minutes and working itself into a fever all along the way.
But then “Different Days” comes along and things change. This is a gritty rocker, charging ahead with punk fury. “I hate being young,” Mark Perro screams on the song’s huge chorus, and despite the fact that it turns on the youthful energy of the song, you believe him. The thing is, there’s a convincing mix of exhaustion and desperation in that moment and in the excellent unruly song. It pairs nicely with the muddy rock riffs of “Pearly Gates”, which melds blues-on-fire hooks with a Husker Du-like control of noisy melody, and closer “Going Down” which slices out space with its riffs and echoes effectively into those newfound gaps. These moments find the Men once again melding genre and twisting expectations. They also take tight workman-like hooks and expand them, creating songs that break past their borders into the exciting unknown.
Though they may not sound like it, these are the songs that most closely resemble the quiet Campfire Songs. That set, despite its quaint title, showed how lo-fi and home-recorded material could feel expansive rather than restrained, that intimacy could be epic. These songs do the same thing, albeit with much louder results. But where these songs find people stuck between youth and old age, unsure of where to go, if this is where they hate being young, the other songs here find them reaching too far to sound old. “Sleepless” is a toothless country thumper, and it runs out of energy much in the same way those first few songs on the record do.
The more classic-rock songs here show the Men doing the E Street shuffle instead of coming up with their own moves. They’re reminding us this is nowhere instead of mapping out their own terrain. They’re squatting at Big Pink instead of maintaining the homey feel of Campfire Songs. There’s still a solid core to Tomorrow’s Hits, one that cleans up the band’s talents and puts them on display in innovative songs. Unfortunately, for every look forward on Tomorrow’s Hits, there’s another one still stuck in the past.