Words by Brian Salvatore
You have to feel sort of bad for Honus Honus (Ryan Kattner), an experimental gem from Philadelphia.
Even though he has professed to be “not a very big Zappa guy,” you can’t read a single article about Man Man without encountering a Frank Zappa mention. And, to be fair, you can hear why it is brought up a lot – great musicianship, the presence of humor, and the air of not taking yourself so seriously. I get it.
And now, with Mister Heavenly, Kattner is a part of a project rooted in doo-wop, another Zappa staple. Dude just can’t escape the reference.
Out Of Love is a twelve song journey to an alternate dimension, where the song structure of doo-wop remains intact but the insides evolve until the modern age. The melodies are classic, even when the instrumentation is for from it. The band is made up of Kattner on keyboards and vocals, Nicholas Thorburn (aka Nick Diamonds) from Islands/The Unicorns on guitar and vocals and Joe Plummer from Modest Mouse/The Shins on drums.
The press materials for this album call its style “doom-wop,” which is about as accurate as you could get; these aren’t songs about falling in love. Instead, these are songs about failed relationships, murder, jealousy, and other decidedly non-doo-wop material. However, the general feeling of the record is clearly rooted in the late 1950s, with only a few detours away from that time period; “Reggae Pie” is, you guessed it, a reggae tune (with an irritating false ending) and opening track “Bronx Sniper” has no real connection to the genre besides the macabre subject matter. These two tracks represent the lowest points on an album that otherwise presents a unique and consistent vision throughout.
The other ten songs on the record are a breath of fresh air. The enthusiasm practically drips from the speakers on “Mister Heavenly” where Kattner’s melody enchants until it is supplanted by Thorburn’s counter-melody and Plummer’s drums drive the song into a frenzy. “Pineapple Girl” flips the traditional role of each vocalist; Thorburn (with the sweet tenor) plays the scary man, and Kattner (with the gruff baritone) the little girl. “Diddy Eyes,” which gets my vote for song title of the year, features some incredible backing vocals and has so much melody it is almost unfair. On “Your Girl,” they even bring back one of doo-wop’s most infamous vocal techniques: the speaking voice over the singing background. I personally dislike this touch most times, but here it seems like yet another throwback touch that keeps with the record’s mission statement.
Thorburn’s guitar work feels most familiar here, as you can recognize his style from previous recordings; both Kattner and Plummer seem to be mining new territory in their playing, and the result is a record that sounds familiar and, at the same time, totally new. Little tricks like distorting the drum kit, or using a Man Man-ish organ sound now-and-then distinguishes the modern elements from the parts where Kattner is playing like a 50’s studio pianist or Plummer is doing his best D.J. Fontana impression. It turns the listener’s instincts on their ear; they bought an indie rock album, but midway through, the listener is thrown off by simple indie rock techniques. It is a brilliant move that keeps everything fresh.
Despite the inspired instrumentation, the way the two vocalists use each other as a foil is where so much of the magic happens on this record. The songs that they sing on their own are fine, but when their vocals mix together, the band’s full potential is realized. This is a side-project the way a side project is supposed to be: this is a detour from all three members’ day jobs, and it creates something unique, interesting and just a little bit weird. The band hasn’t decided if this will be a one-record project or more, but if it continues, let’s hope they don’t get away from the interplay. And no more reggae. Please.
“Out of Love”
Sub Pop Records
© August 16th, 2011
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