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When a band is made up of former record-store clerks, screenprinters, and music writers, you can pretty much bet on a quality product. Mannequin Men have just delivered their most quality product to date.
The Chicago quintet—-which has been making jangly, beautifully loud ramshackle rock about girls and booze since 2003—-recently released its fourth album, Mannequin Men. It contains 12 songs about being a self-aware rock ‘n’ roll fan and being in a band. The subject matter isn’t exciting. In fact, I’d prefer not to hear about the road from 99 percent of the bands that sing about the road. But for the first time on record, Mannequin Men sound comfortable. Their first three records, full of competent blasts of garage abandonement, sounded like excuses to play shows. Their live act came first, and for any garage-rock band, that’s how it should be. Now, it’s difficult to classify Mannequin Men as a garage act. That’ll be plain when the band plays at the Black Cat tonight.
Singer and rhythm guitarist Kevin Richard “learned to be in a band over the course of eight years,” he says. What started as a group of guys who just wanted to have fun and get drunk and watch Chicago Blackhawks games before and after being on stage has turned into something of a veteran act. They’ve regularly released 7-inch singles, made full-lengths, and hit the road as much as four guys with dayjobs can.
That doesn’t mean the tours are any less grueling. “In the past, at this point in the tour, everyone is tired, we feel like we’re getting sick,” says Richard. It’s 11 days in, it’s raining, that’s when you get pissed off. Last night it was bad weather in Baltimore. The place wasn’t too full, we maybe had 11 people and a bar back. We had just played a great show in New York the night before. But we figured out what works and what doesn’t work for us. We played really well. Right now, it’s still fun, which is strange.”
As Mannequin Men have matured, their songs have moved away from the Johnny Thunders-style booziness by which the group first made its name. “The new stuff comes across pretty aggressive,” says Richard. “We’re playing songs twice as fast. The old drunk us wasn’t fun for everyone. We’re a lot tighter and we’re playing our instruments better.”
One highlight of the new record is “Hobby Girl,” a song penned by lead guitarist Ethan D’Ercole. To my ears, the chorus (“You should get a hobby girl/Or find someone else to talk to”) might be the best brush-off on record this calendar year. Richard disagrees. “Everyone asks, ‘Isn’t your girlfriend pissed about that song?’ but it’s a lot sweeter than it sounds.”
Mannequin Men plays Black Cat tonight with Cheap Time and Highway Cross. $8. 10 p.m. The new album is available on Addenda Records. The first 150 albums were pressed on beer colored vinyl. Disclosure: Miles Raymer, the bassist for Mannequin Men, is a music writer for Chicago Reader, a sister publication of Washington City Paper. That really doesn’t matter to me. I liked the band way before Miles joined.