The Men, ‘Open Your Heart’ (Sacred Bones)
Release Date: March 6, 2012
Label: Sacred Bones
For hardcore (or post-hardcore) Brooklyn DIY types — their lives a jumble of comically seedy underground shows held in basement dungeons, dank warehouses, condemned lofts, wisely abandoned storefronts, and so forth — no sound is so elusive and fantastical as actual crickets, no sight as wondrous as the sky’s own stars. You long for that stuff, eventually, no matter how urban and cosmopolitan you fancy yourself. Everybody’s going to the country, as the song goes, if only for a day trip — even the dudes really into Jesus Lizard. We join the Men, now, in their temporarily-back-to-nature moment.
You may have met this thoughtfully violent quartet in 2011, via their feral, abstract-expressionist breakthrough full-length Leave Home, which comes closest to aurally conjuring up the possibly-already-on-fire Williamsburg cavern where music like this was meant to be heard. Their hurricane-gale shoegaze mosaics radiated the druggy hypnosis of Krautrock, the caustic spite of no wave, the slithering lethality of Amphetamine Reptile noise-punk. You could feel the curb between your teeth, particularly during the harrowing David Yow mash note “L.A.D.O.C.H.,” one of those brutally slow, lung-shredding, grotesque-construction-accident-percussion numbers. Even through headphones it felt like a death sentence. The rest of the record, though just as gnarly and overdriven, but far cheerier and even goofier (song title: “Shittin’ with the Shah”), barely survives it.
Open Your Heart improves the band’s focus even as it widens its range, ditching the harrowing, hacking-death-cough stuff and reaching for something more… let’s say “pastoral.” Eventually. First, though, comes leadoff track “Turn It Around,” whose thrilling opening seconds are pure Freedom Rock, a simple, naked, titanic riff unabashed in its maxed-out-car-stereo virility. Makes you want to buy a Camaro. A lumbering, prismatic, art-punk squall soon engulfs it, an only slightly fancier and finer-tuned version of the stark ferocity emblematic of the Sacred Bones label’s best stuff. “Animal” hits even harder, the snarling riff just as classic and epochal, sparkling with both bone-crunching intensity and sly wit. “I’m an animal!” howls Chris Hansell, one of several lead-singing Men; “He’s an animal!” chirp a pack of approving females in response.
(Songs where backup singers simply repeat what the lead vocalist just said, in the third person, are the best. For genre aficionados, Art Brut’s “Moving to L.A.” is still way funnier, but this one’s way better.)
Moving on though, yes, here we have “Country Song,” which is not an ironic title: a slow, ambling, gently reverbed riff given six minutes to calmly, wordlessly pull off its boots and stretch its legs, backed by a rhythm section that for once doesn’t sound like a 650-car pile-up. “Candy” is an even more explicit dirt-road anthem, acoustic-driven, lightly crooned, spryly shuffling, practically a Drive-By Truckers song in its embrace of wry humility: “When I hear the radio / I don’t care that it’s not me,” drawls fellow singing Man Nick Chiericozzi.
Such countrypolitan nods aren’t highlights, per se — you’ll start skipping past them (“Candy,” especially, it’s true), in favor of quicker, more immediately gratifying aggression bombs like “Cube” and the plaintively literal, falsetto-pretty “Please Don’t Go Away.” But they are crucial moments in Heart’s upgrade from a batch of great songs to a great album, connective tissue and rising/falling action you can occasionally live without, but the album can’t. Same goes for “Presence,” a sort of back-porch Mogwai deal (just add crickets), gradually ascending to a stoned chant of “I can feel you all the time,” a prelude to the thrilling, cacophonous, teenage-riot closer “Ex-Dreams,” redolent of Daydream Nation’s glamorously casual urban freakouts.
From the convertible-ecstasy opener on, Open Your Heart would make a killer eight-track, an unbreakable loop of ebb and flow, percolation and detonation. Dive in anywhere and be immediately immersed or subsumed. But the record’s best moments embody that arc in miniature. The breakneck title track distills the band’s rage romanticism, power pop growing fangs and claws: “Even if she says no / I won’t let go,” Chiericozzi desperately moans, most definitely now caring if it’s not him, conjuring up Lou Barlow caught exactly halfway between Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh. And a record that seems to peak half a dozen times might definitively do so on “Oscillation,” a slow-build stunner that elegantly alchemizes the band’s Brooklyn-grit propulsion and newly acquired backwoods elegance into a tirade of tenderness. An ideal road-trip anthem, whether you are desperately fleeing the city or triumphantly returning.