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Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013

The Men Trade Wild Rock ’n’ Roll for Rustic Pleasures

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Listening to the roto-rooting squeal of “Grave Desecration,” a track from The Men’s 2010 album Immaculada, you’d never guess that three years later the band would be releasing an EP recorded around a campfire in the Catskills. And yet, here we are: logs crackle, guitars thrum and the band’s new Campfire Songs EP makes “Grave Desecration” sound like a distant memory. 

The story of The Men has become defined by this sort of rapid transformation, from the early, exploratory harshness of Immaculada and 2011’s Leave Home to a more populist rock sound on 2012’s breakout Open Your Heart. Earlier this year, the band continued its metamorphosis with New Moon, an album of homey, Basement Tapes-esque Americana and surging rock ’n’ roll whose shuffling, piano-plinking opening bars would probably be unrecognizable to fans of the band’s early teeth-gnashing. 

“We always want to do something different each time, without forcing it,” says guitarist and vocalist Nick Chiericozzi. “We try to just write what feels natural. I think it’s good to evaluate things critically, but you can’t ignore when something just clicks and feels right.”

The band retreated to the Catskills Mountains to record New Moon, where Chiericozzi says he and his bandmates were “all kind of on the same wavelength.” This meant songs were written and recorded quickly—he believes the best ones came together in 10 minutes—in a cabin-turned-studio that looks a lot like The Band’s Big Pink. Chiericozzi insists the resemblance is coincidental, but doesn’t rule out The Band as an influence. “We’re trying to do our own thing, but still participate in tradition,” he says.

That may be the best description of New Moon you’ll hear. While it is by far the band’s most “traditional” album, with its frequent bursts of harmonica and lyrics about tambourines and trees, its persistent abandon makes it unmistakably The Men, who still revel in the sound of instruments banging into one another. There is something even a little harsh about how the acoustic guitars clash and bramble on laid-back country-rocker “The Seeds,” one of the album’s lightest moments. Dig deeper and you’ll discover “The Brass” and “Electric,” some of the most searing, raucous rock songs The Men have written. 

The band recorded Campfire Songs during those New Moon sessions. Before they ever conspired to make an EP, though, the band just wanted to get out of the house. 

“It was kind of a crisp spring evening, you know, with this huge sky,” recalls Chiericozzi, who is originally from Oshkosh but has lived in New York City for 15 years. “In New York City you don’t get to see the sky, hardly. Your line of sight is less than a matter of a couple blocks sometimes, depending on where you are. So that was really important, for fun, to just get outside.” 

The fireside jam session became something more when the band listened back and liked the sound of the recordings, which are exactly what you’d expect from songs created under such conditions: cozy, intimate, a little spontaneous, a little divine. “It turned out to sound really good,” says Chiericozzi. “All the songs felt good and felt right at the time.” 

New Moon and Campfire Songs are products—literal records—of the time and place they were made. The Men have the rare ability to absorb their surroundings and weave them back into their songs, resulting in records you can feel and places you can almost see: five guys, a campfire, the woods, the sky. What The Men do next is anyone’s guess, but it will probably depend on where they do it.

“I would like to go somewhere by an ocean,” says Chiericozzi, when I ask about his dream recording location. “I don’t know if there are any studios in Washington state, on the Olympian Peninsula.” It’s uncharted territory, sure. But that hasn’t stopped The Men before. 

The Men play the Cactus Club on Thursday, Oct. 17, with Purling Hiss and Pampers at 9:30 p.m.