Review Summary: A homage to classic rock 'n roll from two unlikely worshippers.
Supergroups more often than not leave me feeling like the disconsolate patsy on the cover of this album, the lifeless hope of what could have been lying facedown in the dirt while I weep tears of disappointment because of it. This is a bit dramatic, but isn’t that what supergroups promise? Drama, bigger, better things, the logical conclusion that follows from the infallible mathematical equation that if you add great things together you get something greater. Of course, it rarely works out that way, so generally you won’t see me actually crying into my arm when Kanye and Jay-Z’s last album isn’t the best thing since, uh, Kanye’s last album. It doesn’t help when musicians tag their new projects with utterly meaningless descriptions like “doom-wop” that guarantee I will look at it and cringe. The problem with Nick Thorburn née Diamonds of the Unicorns and more recently Islands is that the man just doesn’t care. Off-kilter indie, Neil Young-flavored folk, goofy hip-hop – Thorburn has slept with them all, and the results have not always been pretty. Thorburn’s dipped his stick into so many cans that his own identity and talents have become tawdry tricks, unfocused and haphazard.
It’s no surprise then to realize that Mister Heavenly succeeds because it adds that crucial element that Thorburn has previously lacked: an equal creative force to bounce off of. Ryan Kattner, the ivory-pounding face of experimental rock outfit Man Man, is probably one of the few musicians in indie who could stand up to Thorburn’s particular shade of weird, and he’s not just some piano in the background. Kattner is what gives Out Of Love
its flair, a distinct character that could very well make Mister Heavenly more of a regular concern. His rugged howl is the perfect counterpoint to Thorburn’s nasally whine, the kind of oil and vinegar pairing that gives much of Out Of Love
its bite. Musically the two are right in sync; Kattner’s piano playing is much more reserved than his work in Man Man, with an emphasis on pounded chords and a two-step, barroom beat, while Thorburn’s warm guitar tones take inspiration from classic surf melodies and Kattner’s own vocal inflections.
For a project ostensibly looking to the past for inspiration, it’s amazing how original these songs sound. Short and simple, Out Of Love
has the requisite “doo-wahs” and forlorn lyrics about (what else?) love and heartbreak, and the key to every tune is a dyed-in-the-wool pop melody. But the difference is in Kattner’s unusually dark lyrics, words belied by his relentlessly chipper vocal delivery, in the sparkling production that makes every electric guitar lick shine and the keys sing, in drummer Joe Plummer’s superb drumming and the sturdy backbone it provides. Plummer, who’s already working overtime as a member of the Shins and Modest Mouse, brings the kind of solid rhythm work that would go unnoticed if it wasn’t for the endless variety he brings, from the complicated backbeat to “Pineapple Girl” to the thunderous stomp on “Bronx Sniper.” Combine that with Thorburn and Kattner’s chameleonic styles and you’re left with a record where the listener never really knows what’s coming next. The best part? You can’t wait to find out.
Where Out Of Love
rises from mere pastiche to a genuinely well-crafted statement is in the songwriting. ‘50s-style vocal harmonies set to the true story of the pen-pal relationship between Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and a ten-year-old American girl, with Thorburn and Kattner trading off playful verses, is just the right kind of weird that makes Out Of Love
so gratifying. “Bronx Sniper” sounds like a more aggressive version of Spoon, but when Kattner roars in with a serrated howl after Thorburn intones “no one gets out of here alive” and Plummer bangs the living *** out of his set, it’s a catharsis so pure it doesn’t need any fancy made-up genre descriptions other than ***ing rock ‘n roll. That’s not even mentioning the old school AM-radio replications like the jazzy, anthemic “Charlyne” and the note-perfect Brill Building pop of “Diddy Eyes,” songs that sound timeless and thoroughly evocative without being lifeless clones.
And then Mister Heavenly goes out on their inaugural tour with ***ing Michael Cera on bass. It’s hard to say with a stunt like that whether Mister Heavenly is going to remain more than just Nick Thorburn’s passing fancy, but Out Of Love
has more than enough juice for a sequel. Just enough with the gimmicks already.