Review: The Men, Open Your Heart

So, wait – everyone’s fine with this?

Brooklyn’s the Men have been attracting some media attention lately. Not internet attention – the real kind; the square kind. The New York Times kind: in a write-up of their March 7 Williamsburg loft show, reporter Ben Ratliff vacillates between lauding the Men and disparaging them, although in the end he opts for the former. To Ratliff, they don’t stand up to close analysis. “You can wonder why the men in the Men don’t want to be better: better singers, better players, better riff writers,” he writes. “Reduce this band to its parts, and all the charm drains out of it.” Elsewhere, he notes that their songs “run beyond their natural length and just keep going” and describes their performance as “slovenly.”

Ultimately, Ratliff praises the Men, but his praise is faint praise – that stuff of damnation – laced with … well, if not actual disappointment, then bafflement, the confusion of an outsider who peeks into a subculture and can’t for the life of him figure out what all the fuss is about. And Ratliff understands exactly what the Men are doing when he dissects their style: “Sometimes a riff is just a riff, but played a certain way at a certain speed, it’s a reference, and there’s a pointed power in a reference, a kind of self-identification.” Those references are plumage, peacock feathers. They signify the band’s position as curators of cultural knowledge. They advertise that the Men deserve to be onstage, deserve to put out records, deserve attention from critics.

Ratliff gets what they’re up to. The Men get it, too. They’ve completely absorbed Jon Cusack’s line from High Fidelity that people should be defined by their tastes. As artists, nothing could hurt them more.

In my review of Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory, I harp on the oft-repeated notion that “talent borrows, genius steals.” Much of that record’s charm, I argue, stems from band audibly swiping whole sections from the Wipers’ Youth of America and then bending those stolen elements into their own. The Men’s Open Your Heart represents the flipside of that equation. My first impression was that of a music student’s third-year final project. A second listen does nothing to change that – not good for a band on their third LP. Here’s our Neu! song (“Oscillation”). Here’s our Stooges song (“Animal”). Here’s our Crosby, Stills & Nash song (“Candy”). Here’s our My Bloody Valentine song (“Please Don’t Go Away”). Did we miss anything on the syllabus?

The Men don’t steal. They borrow, as if Klaus Dinger or Ron Asheton or David Crosby or Kevin Shields will be back in a week to pick their tunes up. They rent, daring not to alter their sources too much lest their landlord withholds their security deposit. They flit from style to style but commit to none, adding nothing beyond a mantle of distortion in a slapdash attempt to unify the proceedings. While the album plays, I hear what they’re attempting on Open Your Heart; once it ends, I remember almost none of it, since it was never theirs to begin with. Open Your Heart sounds like everything; Open Your Heart sounds like nothing.

No. Hold on. Open Your Heart sounds like exactly what it is: the product of basement-show punk kids tired of the genre’s restrictions, who don’t know where to turn next. So they play musical dress-up. Therein lies the Men’s problem: they may be the most well-read hardcore band at the show, but they’re a hardcore band nonetheless. Fittingly, the two tracks on Open Your Heart that bear any trace of uniqueness – opener “Turn It Around” and “Cube,” the shortest track at under two-and-a-half minutes – stick the closest to the template of crashing drums and overpowering distortion. By themselves, they’re not especially memorable; in context, they illuminate the fact that while the Men may have expanded their musical vocabulary beyond the all-ages scene, they haven’t escaped the subculture’s methodology.

Hardcore prizes familiarity and authenticity above innovation and creativity. To an extent, all music does this: notoriety rides upon waves of hype, of me-too bands and made-up genres and professionally-generated publicity. But hardcore leans upon herd mentality more than most. Bands vie both live and on record to hit all the requisite subcultural markers that denote their realness and prove their rightful place in the hardcore canon. (Witness how crowds ignore bands until they announce they’re playing a cover.) Fans decry musicians who look past the scene’s well-demarcated borders, tossing around the term “sellout” as if it held any relevance in 2012 – or, for that matter, as if selling out were legitimately still possible. In its 1980s heyday, hardcore at its best provided a springboard for musical exploration; today, it’s a bastion of conservatism, where artistic and social constriction march hand-in-hand.

For all their attempts to escape their scene’s gravity, the Men never really break orbit. They keep returning to their hardcore ways, like a self-professed retired criminal lured back time and again by the false promise of one last big job. In a way, their half-hearted stabs at flouting hardcore tradition fall directly in line with it: how many old hardcore seven-inches included token exercises in reggae or funk or postpunk meant to silence reviewers’ accusations of one-dimensionality? Answer: tons. Open Your Heart just extends that idea to album length, and to its credit pulls it off better than most. But simply completing an exercise well doesn’t transform it into something more.

Here’s where the critics come in. Make no mistake, the Men are no household name – they’re a bloggers’ band, well beneath the notice of Entertainment Weekly or Newsweek and not quite big enough to register at Spin. (For that matter, their coverage in the Times reflects more on their ZIP code than their LP sales.) But the Men aim past the realm of punk zines, towards bigger-name indie publications; in that world, much of the response has been positive. Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen awarded Open Your Heart an 8.5 in a March 5 review, making it a shoo-in for the website’s Best of 2012 list. The next day, Jason Heller of The A.V. Club gave it an A.

Conversely, Vice magazine’s Anthony Pappalardo found Open Your Heart dull, a pastiche of influences already beaten to death by other bands; like Ratliff, he also thought the songs were too long. (They’re both correct – the Men consistently pad each track by a minute or two.) Notably, though, Pappalardo’s dismissal of Open Your Heart says much the same thing as Heller’s endorsement. Both reviewers point out the title track’s similarity to the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love”; both claim that the album opens with the main riff from “Suspect Device” by Stiff Little Fingers. (I don’t hear it.)

Heller hears a “party album.” Cohen echoes him, asserting that “it’s difficult to remember a rock record that managed to be this much fun without resorting to cheerleading” and likening Open Your Heart to “a masterful DJ mix.” Where they hear celebration, Papallardo detects cynicism: “Is the album good? I don’t really care,” he scoffs. To him, the Men have merely “made an album that references whatever the fucking lazy retired human listening thinks is ‘rock music.’” No reviewer, however, pretends that the Men stand alone on their own merit; all three produce encyclopedia entries, references, Sparknotes for the listener at home.

I’ve done the same. It’s impossible to avoid with an album that refuses at every turn to synthesize its component influences into any sort of coherent whole. The Men’s music rewards knowledge, validates the listener (or reviewer) for “getting it,” but it never becomes its own thing. It’s a soundtrack for a subculture in flux. A fan and a detractor differ only in that a fan will insist that it doesn’t matter, while a detractor will counter that it does. In the end, laziness overwhelms Open Your Heart – the laziness of the student who mistakes a vast bibliography for original thought.

Ratliff picks up on this – their sloppiness, their apparent disdain for their chosen craft – and pulls it apart for five paragraphs before abruptly deciding that while the Men’s music isn’t good, it’s good enough. “But somehow this doesn’t feel like an urgent game with the Men,” he concludes. “Maybe they don’t care, or want very much to appear not to care. Maybe that’s all right.” But it’s not. In art, “good” is not the same thing as “good enough.” If the Men presented themselves as a hardcore band, Open Your Heart would still fail to impress me, but I might applaud them for introducing some color to a genre that paints in two shades of grey. Any effort to stand out looks monumental next to total apathy. But the Men don’t want to play hardcore, and outside of hardcore the standards are higher. Or should be, at least.

I don’t dismiss the Men for being unoriginal or for wearing their influences on their flannel and denim sleeves. Art cannibalizes art constantly; no piece of art springs fully formed, Minerva-like, from its creator’s head. No, I dismiss the Men because Open Your Heart satisfies itself with being no more than a game of Trivial Pursuit: fun the first time, less fun the second, a sleeping aid once you’ve memorized enough of the answers. Demand more from art.

Open Your Heart was released March 6, 2012. Available on LP and CD from www.sacredbonesrecords.com.

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