By Tom Lynch
Are we not mannequin men?
Chicago’s delivered some avenging rock ‘n’ roll in recent years, but none more smart-ass and scathing than Mannequin Men. With heavy influence from The Wipers, the four-piece assaults with whippersnapper snot rockets and coy, drunken advances, so much so that after a first listen, you feel offended.
“Fresh Rot” is the new record, out on Flameshovel, the follow-up to the band’s self-released debut, the well-received and gritty “Showbiz Witch.” Lead singer and guitarist Kevin Richard howls with pseudo-enthusiastic overtones and sounds akin to The Stooges, injecting “fuck”s whenever feasible. Make no mistake—this isn’t any brand of slacker rock; there’s a precision here along with a go-for-broke, confident wailing, and the attitude this group exudes, on record and in a live setting, forces you to concede and recognize it as one of the city’s best bands.
Richard says he began singing in the band in 2003 “out of necessity. We didn’t want to be instrumental and deal with the post-rock curse out here. It’s not hard to sing rock ‘n’ roll music. You just got to not think about it. It was like, we don’t want to [take the time] to find someone weird enough that’s into the same shit right now.”
“Fresh Rot,” despite its rough edges, is more clean-cut than its predecessor, with a bit more swagger, a fresh rot, if you will. “I think it’s a totally different band,” Richard says of how the records compare. “With the first one I felt like we were really stuck in what we were being labeled as. We wanted to be lo-fi, dirty and small and all that shit. But, it’s kind of, like, you give up on that after a while. We’re way more ambitious now. This one was honestly something we wanted to put out, that we believe in more. We love ‘Showbiz Witch,’ I’m not gonna diss it, but it’s part of the past.”
While Mannequin Men have the disposition to be a beer-swiggin’ rock band from Chicago—and find an appropriate home on the beer-swiggin’ Flameshovel Records—the band’s admittedly tough to place, in an area of its own. First of all, the band’s fucking fun, which we don’t see as often as we should and will help suffocate the impending doom of winter. Also, there’s an adolescent-like free-for-all quality in the music’s presentation, a charming one, indeed. “All the reviews we get back say ‘These guys don’t fit,’” Richard says. “People say we’re too smart for the punk kids, too dumb for the indie kids. But I don’ t think that’s necessarily true. I think people like to have a good time. People like rock ‘n’ roll music. We’re not trying anything different here, not trying to forge a new path.”
Smack dab in the middle of “Fresh Rot” is a suckerpunch of a song, called “22nd Century,” a Velvet Underground-type ballad that comes out of nowhere and contrasts with just about everything before and after it. Funny thing is, as weird as it is, it’s a great song, a nice bridge to the album’s final songs. “It was one of the newer ones,” Richard says. “When we went to record it, it was a pretty new song still. We were all really nervous about it, for obvious reasons, but something has to be said for taking that chance, thumbing your nose at people who maybe don’t want to like it. You don’t want to get caught in the same shit forever. To me it sounded like a Velvet Underground song, and when we listened back to it, we were like, ‘Oh shit, it’s really really slow. What do we do?’ But I love the damn song.”
Richard says that the band will stay in Chicago and will stick with Flameshovel—“Hands down the greatest guys we’ve ever worked with, as long as they’ll have us,” he says. “Every record they put out they stand behind and believe in”—and that they’re already underway penning the next record. “We’re always writing new stuff,” he says. “As far as the songwriting goes, you bring [something new] to practice, everyone works on it. It’s not anything more complicated than that.” He says that over the last four years the band’s greatly improved its musical articulation skills. “We’ve been playing together for so long, we’re all best friends, there’s very little verbal communication. Usually we play [a new song] three or four times, and it’s like, ‘OK, that’s good enough for Sub-T.’”
Mannequin Men rot away with The Black Lips September 28 at Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 North Kedzie, (773)509-5019, at 8:30pm. $13-$15.