Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Record Review: The Men - Open Your Heart

It may be premature to call it a trend, but Brooklyn-based band the Men have recently begun utilizing album titles as extensions of their narrative. Or so it would seem. While it’s just as likely coincidental—both 2011's Leave Home and their latest, Open Your Heart, can be read as traditionally delineated titles too—I can’t help but feel like they exist as artist/audience discourse rather than as admonitions. The Men's debut for Sacred Bones felt in many ways like a spiritual rebirth, and while they didn’t literally transplant themselves from their Brooklyn home, they nonetheless left the confines of localized, self-released obscurity for national distribution and wider consideration. Open Your Heart is an even more direct decree—and again, not a suggestion toward artistic agreement but rather a curt announcement of the potential effect this record will have on you, the listener. This is a confident, some might say cocky, edict coming from what can occasionally feel like a punk band with identity issues. But it’s consistently impressive how coyly the Men tug at the heartstrings across this record’s expansive sonic terrain.

Is it a matter of toning things down a bit? Party, perhaps, but this shortsighted reading would only account for one facet of the band’s zeroed-in, cupid’s arrow attack-and-release. That they’ve mostly dropped the hardcore wallop and sludge guitar bludgeoning of Leave Home is certainly notable, but this seeming regression yields a more textured, intricately outlined dual-arcing song cycle of considerable depth. It’s less a loss of muscle than a redistribution of power, and an uncommonly patient exercise in rock band dynamics and melodic compression. So, yes, the album represents yet another in the band’s ever-multiplying array of sonic personas, but it plays especially well in light of Leave Home, as the two records work as a kind of perfectly symmetrical inverse of one another: the rowdy travelogue of the debut a visceral dispatch of new life experiences to Open Your Heart’s potent blend of the anthemic and the emotionally and melodically acute. This is still a band careening between styles, seemingly with no brakes, but with an arm outstretched and a foundation in the humane, the Men have fully grown to embody the various implications of their moniker, maturing without buckling to foisted expectations while gilding the extremes of their aesthetic without sacrificing the dangerous energy of their youth.

A more nominally appropriate opener than “Turn It Around” one couldn’t conceive of; the Men come out like Leave Home’s closer “Night Landing” simply engaged another cylinder in their engine. The track’s a streamlined display of the Men’s vigor and compositional prowess, and that’s before it climaxes in a particularly pummeling surge of percussion, one last rush of instrumental fury prefacing the point when a lesser band would reign in the excess. Nope, not these guys: “Animal” follows in due course, its lacerating guitar texture and feral vocal turn from co-lead singer Nick Chiericozzi effectively bridging the gap between the carnal and the cerebral. This is the Men essentially being boys for the whiplash intro to their first “mature” record, but the album’s unique range quickly opens out to us with “Country Song” and “Oscillation,” two loosely structured jams—both of which hint at their title’s sonic connotations but mostly work to subvert just such assumptions—that remind us of this band’s disregard for anything as recognizable as traditional verse-chorus-verse construction. Indeed, that would imply vocal parts and melodies in agreeable quantities and at expected intervals. Open Your Heart moves through extended instrumental sequences in a manner similar to the Men’s prior work, but with an effortless stride that manifests naturally via the communicative ebb and flow of the players.

Open Your Heart’s B-side—and the designation is right there on the cover, so there’s no reason to consider this in any manner aside from two distinct cycles—is slightly less unfettered. Then again, it also represents the single best run of tunes the band's yet sequenced, and plays as a bracing, three-dimensional rebuttal to anyone still skeptical of their songwriting acumen. One-upping side A’s twofer opening gauntlet, the title track and “Candy” bring the melodies hard—and in completely different sonic settings—evidencing the inventiveness these guys currently have at their disposal. The title track offsets its playful singsong hook and confessional plea with off-key vocals and a full-tilt flurry of interlocking guitars and reckless percussion. It can sound at times like some dude singing his heart out in the shower to his favorite rock band, further emphasizing the base identification these guys offer up to anyone with a willing ear. The heart of the record, however, lies with “Candy,” a Replacements-worthy slide guitar ballad with a chorus so nakedly honest (“When I hear the radio playing/I don’t care that it’s not me"), resigned yet totally content, that it can’t help but turn from endearing to inspirational.

It’s only March, of course, but 2012 is already shaping up to be the year indie-rock reasserts itself amidst a near ironic influx of synthetic artistic caricatures. The aesthetic rebirth of Cloud Nothings, the reunion of Guided by Voices, the “cyber-punk” exhortations of Pop.1280, the anticipated upcoming return of Japandroids—they've all contributed to this burst of fresh air in their own unique way, proving that guitars (and in the case of the Men in particular, those inhuman drums as well) still have plenty to say over a half-century on from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Their album titles may disclose certain impetuses behind each record’s creation, but like all worthwhile rock bands they mostly let their instruments—and in some cases, such as “Please Don’t Go Away” and “Presence,” wordless harmonies—do the talking. In the end, what’s great and most intriguing about the experience of Open Your Heart, though, is the palpable sense that these guys aren’t even close to tapping the limits of their potential and will no doubt do so someday soon. I can see it now, circa 2014: The Men announce new album, Save Rock Music. [InRO]

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