Another year, another album from the Men. Over the past two years or so, the Brooklyn quintet has become famous for two things: punchy, melodic punk and a creative fertility approaching that of their San Franciscan peers, like Thee Oh Sees, or even Guided By Voices. Just like the city they claim as home, the Men are a restless bunch, ambitious rockers always searching for new ways to distill garage down to its frazzled, frenzied skeleton—and shape those bones into a creature even rowdier than its ancestor. Last year’s model, Open Your Heart, was a dizzying set of the best ’90s scuzz anthems Dave Grohl wishes he wrote, and many regarded them as rock’s saviors in a post-Nickleback, dubstep-infested wasteland.
If you’re looking for another trip to the punk-rock playground with the band’s latest album, New Moon, you’ll have to find a different ride, at least for the most part. On their fourth record in four years, the rockers have left behind the noisy, claustrophobic haunts of their hometown for a country-fried retreat, more the Band than the Buzzcocks. The album was crafted in a remote mountain abode out in the Catskills, and you need only listen to the first track to see the effects of fresh air on these city boys. “Open The Door” does not open said door with a bang: It lazily sidles into the room, tips its hat to the listener and proceeds to weave together old-time piano, steel guitar and lyrics about “trees swingin’ in the breeze” into a Wilco-indebted pastiche that’s markedly antithetical to the Men’s signature, grungy sound. Longtime fans of the band who fell in love upon hearing the searing opening notes of 2011′s Leave Home will be perturbed, if not perplexed.
But more so than their caustic riffs, the Men’s calling cards are their melodies: simple, warm and delivered with just enough of a raspy edge to avoid being too soft. In this respect, the Americana route actually fits reasonably well within the band’s methodology—free of all the noise, the hooks are crisper and more immediate. The first half of the record is chock-full of Jayhawks-esque jams, rife with mandolin and subtle harmonies. “Half Angel Half Light,” the twangy second track, is a delightful taste of fuzz-pop that would undeniably have made for a better opener; it offers up the rustic touches without the overwrought rural cliches. The heartland rock reaches its apex with “I Saw Her Face,” the album’s de facto “jam song.” Though closer “Supermoon” is longer, at eight minutes, it never hits the cathartic highs of its earlier neighbor.
At around the halfway point, with the pummeling post-punk of “The Brass,” the Men begin to slip out of their pastoral trance and, in a sudden, unexplained diversion (or is it a reversion?), seem to revert back to their punkier incarnation. To the Fugazi-favoring demographic described earlier, songs like “Electric,” “I See No One” and “Freaky” will no doubt provide some relief from the hoedown and may prove to be New Moon’s saving grace. To others, including myself, this shift is an annoyance that disrupts the more reserved pace of the album; it seems as though the guys, tired of the granola and the morning fog, just threw up their hands, polished off a few dusty B-sides and decided to call it a day. Smoothing an epochal shift with a sonic mix of new and old isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Arguably, the band did the same thing when it cast aside the spacey sounds of Leave Home for the alt-leaning Open Your Heart. But on New Moon, the transition is rocky, more of a cop-out than a compromise.
As difficult to stomach as the countrified transformation of these New York brats may initially seem, it was still a ballsy move, and with repeated listens, I began wondering if this were part of the Men’s natural evolution, from post-punk, to punk, to rock, to epic anthems à la Tom Petty. But at this point, the steps seem furtive, undecided, unfinished. At the rate they’re building their discography, the Men will get their Neil Young cred eventually. Just not right now.