(Sacred Bones; 2013)
By Maura McAndrew | 18 March 2013
The way New Moon begins is certainly surprising. Though the Men have shown some versatility in the past, it has never involved the smooth sounds of an electric piano, precisely the centerpiece of “Open the Door,” the album’s first track and ostensible harbinger of a new focus for the band. It’s a bold move to start with this track and its follow up “Half Angel Half Light,” the two most un-Men-like songs on the record, and it’s proven to be off-putting to some, who have prematurely mourned the death of the Men, noisy rock band.
It’s premature because, well, that band is still alive and well on New Moon, and though “Open the Door”’s rambling good-time country vibes might throw a person’s expectations out of whack, the Men have not, in fact, been replaced with Quantum Leap-ing members of the Dead. They’ve merely evolved into a band with greater range, one that knows when to hit the distortion and when to bust out the lap steel—and believe it or not, the balance achieved on New Moon makes it their most interesting and consistent effort yet.
After their knack for rocking out and crafting a memorable melody, the Men’s most appealing quality is their sense of humor, evident in the way they treat the lyrics and liner notes for New Moon as a playground of rock ’n’ roll cliché, decorating them with drawings of wolves and snakes, roses, devils, and peace signs. And let’s face it: we don’t listen to Men albums for their poetry. On the aforementioned “Open the Door,” Nick Chiericozzi sings cheerfully over that plunk-y organ: “I wonder if you’re thinkin’ / About the words I am singin’ / When I hear the guitar playin’ / The lone tambourine ringin’.” Note the dropped g’s and yes, that’s “GIT-tar” and “RANG-in’.” Here and elsewhere on the album, the Men never meet a cliché they don’t like. But there’s something so gleeful, so un-embarrassed about the way they tear into them. It’s impressive the way this band actually celebrates their own limitations, and infectious enough that even a rock critic might forget to roll her eyes.
The Men don’t need to be goofy, however, when it comes to building a song. Each track on New Moon has its own solid hook, and though interspersed with a more toned-down sound than we heard on Open Your Heart, there are still plenty of righteous rock ’n’ roll moments. “I Saw Her Face,” the album standout, is the perfect Men song: just a touch of Tom Petty rootsy melody, building in bursts until abruptly changing tempo and exploding into a guitar freakout. The band clearly recognizes the song’s importance to the record by printing on the album booklet a completely silly mini-essay about its creation. Chiericozzi writes, “You ever been in? Inside the moment? I could’ve done anything. I don’t know where she came from, but she was there—and her and I were moving. It felt right to fly around the corner like a mountain lion and give Rich the nod to kick it up, so I did.” And there’s actually much more where that came from. But the song is so good that I actually am a little bit interested in the process, and all the better that it be cloaked in animal metaphors and stoner slang.
“The Brass” and “Supermoon” are the only two other tracks that approach an “I Saw Her Face”-level of fuzzed out rock, but both are winners, with “The Brass”’s wailing early Radiohead-style guitar and “Supermoon”’s ragged, drawn out sense of menace. As for the country-inspired side of things, “Open the Door” and “Bird Song” are the only straight-up country songs, with the latter in particular evoking a melancholy beauty with the aid of harmonica. The rest are simply rock songs, maybe more structured and more roots-inspired than some of the Men’s previous work, but rock songs all the same. Highlights here are the “Candy”-like “The Seeds” and the Replacements-inspired “Freaky.” Perhaps less necessary are “I See No One” and “Without a Face” (a song about “a man without a face” that unfortunately conjures up memories of Mel Gibson half-disguised in latex).
But the best thing about New Moon, especially compared to its predecessor, is its flow: there are some truly inspiring transitions here. The best example is the way the super-charged “I Saw Her Face” seems to melt right into “High and Lonesome,” the album’s only instrumental and an uncanny approximation of the Ventures’ serene surf rock. Instead of jumping from one climax to another, on New Moon the band simmers down gently, only to climb back up again.
New Moon feels a little bit long; though only twelve songs, they are all pretty substantial (especially the eight-minute “Supermoon”), and things lag a little between “The Brass” and “I See No One.” However, for a long record and a hastily recorded and released one at that (remember, Open Your Heart came out almost exactly a year ago), it’s surprising how little filler there is here. One doesn’t get the sense that they’re consciously experimenting so much as just feeling out the present moment, and yet somehow this philosophy has built a strangely consistent record. Basically, what becomes clear listening to New Moon is that the Men are a band that riding high on inspiration right now. And rather than piss it away with worries about changing too much, or not enough, or making a statement, they’re content to, in Chiericozzi’s grandiose language, “fly around the corner like a mountain lion,” acting on instinct and need and confidence, purely.