Straight-up rock n’ roll hasn’t sounded much like the future lately. Or even the present. It’s too well-worn, with too much history. Everything’s a reference to something else, but only redeeming the uncoolest slices with guiltless gusto seems to give us any kind of collective thrill. Which is why Open Your Heart, the second Sacred Bones-released record from local punks The Men, seems rare. It’s an unassuming rock record, with the kind of warm, rough sound never goes out of style. It’s guitar-focused, often to the exclusion of everything else. It’s constantly rushing forth, but has plenty of stretches that take their sweet ass time. Of the moment, or blissfully removed from it, it’s notable mainly because it’s really quite good.
The SST Records catalog of the mid-to-late 80s—that founding college rock canon of Dinosaur Jr., Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, and their like—looms large over these songs. There’s a vulnerable Mascis mumble over the title track’s Buzzcocks blurts. The echoed guitar twang of their instrumental “Country Song” might sound funny to a Nashville gent in a 10-gallon hat, yet make cosmic sense to an Arizona acid-head. Even without the hiply un-hip NYC poetry about King Kong on 34th Street, the sudden blinks from positive to negative space in “Ex-Dreams” would still exude metropolitan, Thurstonian cool. But it’s all too loose to feel like studious recreation; a band busy blasting the paint off basement walls isn’t pausing to check their notes.
Although undeniably reminiscent of those very specific glory years, Open Your Heart does represent a bit of a rebuke to a very different kind of 80s worship in Brooklyn’s recent musical past. And even when reminding you of other bands, it manages to feel like honest expression rather than practiced pose. It runs counter to The Men’s own sound circa 2011, too. It’s tough, but it’s not mean. Compared to the slow, barbed feedback thicket fronting last year’s acclaimed Leave Home, the warm racket of lead track, “Turn it Around,” is practically a blinking neon “WELCOME” sign. It’s fast and frantic, but not especially noisy. And such an encouraging sentiment! “I want to see you when you try so hard! I want to see you when you turn it around!” Rampant positivity is one of the record’s chief recommending virtues. It’s no small surprise from a crew whose previous best song centered around perverted French lit. This set matches, surpasses “Bataille,” numerous times, in a number of flavors beyond “full-blast.”
Maybe the most shocking departure here is “Candy.” Sweet, spare, and strummy, more country than “Country Song,” it is yet another “things are going to be alright everybody” hug from these reputed bruisers. “When I hear the radio play, I don’t care that it’s not me,” it asserts. You believe it. Open Your Heart isn’t apt to kickstart any micro-trends. There’s no singular, ahead-of-its time production kernel destined for greater future influence. But it’s saturated in something that its tough to quantify without some corny term like “personal truth.” Which continues to be a brave and ambitious thing to try to capture on tape.