, March 18th, 2013 05:18
When the time came to record their new album, The Men headed a couple of hours north of New York City to a cabin in the Catskill Mountains. The upshot of a 300 million year process of compression and erosion, the Catskills formed from a layer of gradually compressed stone bursting through layers of sediment that had over time been deposited on top of it. According to official lines, the band left the city behind to impose technical limitations on themselves as they set about recording the follow up to last year's widely acclaimed Open Your Heart. Limitations are one thing, but imagine the possibilities that must have occurred to Mark Perro and co. when they realised that New Moon (their fourth album in four years) was to be constructed upon such literal foundations of monolithic, primal rock.
Actually, New Moon is far from the barrage of Neanderthal pummelling that such a contrived writerly metaphor suggests. If anything, it's even more of a step away from 2011 album Leave Home's harsher moments than Open Your Heart was. The ambling, folky country of 'Open the Door' (a song charmingly unbothered by a misplaced left-piano-hand within its first seconds), the wistful, earthy skiffle of 'The Seeds' ("The rake of time, shifting the seeds of my mind") and gentle, minor key washes of piano, lapsteel and guitar of the instrumental 'High and Lonesome' could barely do more to invest New Moon with a sense of lightness. A barrelling sense of urgency still inhabits 'Electric's desert-punk and the scuzzy, single riff attack of 'The Brass', but despite the squalls of wah and overdrive that blare out across 'Half Angel Half Light', 'I Saw Her Face' and 'I See No One', there is a dedication to melody on these tracks that is evocative of Dinosaur Jr. or early REM. More often than not, even New Moon's louder moments are harmonica drenched affairs evoking endless rural sunsets and sunrises, journeys across the time-lapse constancy of the American heartland that have an eye on the next destination and an acoustic guitar tugging at their heart.
That is, apart from 'Supermoon', a song that sums up what is so good about The Men without sounding like anything else on New Moon. Interviewing the band for The Stool Pigeon in the months before Open Your Heart was released, John Doran suggested that rock music, having left behind innovation, was entering the "age of refinement". At first listen New Moon's final track would seem to counter that thought; it could reasonably be described as a blizzard – or perhaps more aptly a sandstorm – of total un-refinement, an extended earth-churning assault as brutish and imposing as its title suggests.
But then it's always worth thinking twice before contradicting the wisdom of John Doran – which is where the Catskills come in. Think of their transformation, their rise from dust bed to monolith; working in such surroundings, how else could The Men draw New Moon to a close if not by attempting to instigate some kind of tectonic shift of their own? Over eight pounding minutes, 'Supermoon's Shamanic vocal drones summon extended bursts of screeching distortion; a three-chord riff and spiralling, chaotic solos evoke the combined spirit of The Stooges, Mudhoney and The MC5, channelled through what sounds like a million overdriven amplifiers and a million battered fuzzboxes. Maybe Mr Doran is right; maybe it is about refinement after all – even if here it happens on a cosmic scale, with guitars set for the heart of the sun. Whatever the wider implications, it is certainly a triumph over the notion of limitations. It is also a marvellous way to draw an equally marvellous collection of songs to a close.
"In my time I've been as honest as I could be", sings Mark Perro earlier on, over 'Bird Song's fluttering keyboard line. The Men may not be here to change rock history but at the very least they deserve serious recognition for the fact that they keep doing exactly what they want, and that it continues to be as honest and as shamelessly exhilarating as the best rock music always should be.