Ah, the supergroup. A confluence of minds, talents and ideas, or a vanity project cobbled together by egotistical musos with too much spare time? Hmm… let’s see… Asia? Aaaaargh!
Yes, the history of the multi-headed side-project is pockmarked with infernal pitfalls and diabolical failures. If the protocol abides, supergroups are at best little more than the sum of their parts, and at worst ear-bleedingly abominable. Fortunately, not all such collaborations are swallowed whole by their authors’ collective self-regard. With such experiments, the quality of the results tends to be inversely proportional to the participants’ level of fame. Thus, it is fortunate that Mister Heavenly comprises members of acts who, whilst having garnered their fair share of respect and renown, are not yet bloated, pompous rock-star household names.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to form preconceptions when confronted with something as unprecedented as a mash-up of Man Man, Modest Mouse and Islands. Especially when they’re not quite feeling themselves. Comprising Ryan Kattner, a.k.a Man Man’s keyboard-walloping front-growler Honus Honus, Islands’ head honcho and guitarist Nicholas Thorburn and Modest Mouse sticksman Joe Plummer, you’d be forgiven for assuming they’d concoct some kind of gonzoid, percussive, yelping freak-rock. Not so. Probably the last thing you’d expect them to pull out of the bag is classic, 1950’s flavoured harmony pop.
The two singers play the parts, although not as you’d imagine, resulting in an enthrallingly peculiar juxtaposition of innocence and malevolence
It’s the kind of premise that could easily career into parodic disaster. They labelled it ‘doom-wop’, a darker spin on the clean-cut vocal-group schmaltzfests of yesteryear, and, though a bold and honourable intent, alarm-bells are immediately set ringing. However, by largely rejecting more indulgent preoccupations, and focusing on keeping it short, sweet and consistently melodic, they tend to emerge triumphant.
Given their inspiration, it is only natural that the axis of Mister Heavenly is the vocal interplay between Kattner and Thorburn. Thorburn maintains a high, reedy warble, which is ably countered by Kattner’s gravely, surprisingly soulful croon. Both trade leads, soaring over a lush backdrop of their own multi-tracked harmonies.
They do throw a few curveballs, however, at least proving that they enjoy playing together beyond merely creating a genre piece. Opener ‘Bronx Sniper’ is a thumping rock workout, full of crunchy guitars and pummelling drums, and as such is entirely unrepresentative of the album it precedes. Strangely, Thorburn takes the lead, despite lacking the deep timbre that Kattner could potentially have worked into the track to better effect. As it is, it’s a strong enough song, but nowhere near catchy enough to live on in the listener’s memory beyond the end of the track.
Catchiness is no issue for the majority of the songs here, though. Whether it’s your bag or not, there’s no escaping the fact that their melodies are more infectious than the stuff under the sink in an NHS hospital. Despite the misleading start, by track two, ‘I Am A Hologram’, Mister Heavenly have settled into their groove, pumping out a slab of super-sweet sonic toffee. Kattner charges to the fore, walloping his piano and giving guttural life to the verses, whilst Thorburn picks out simple repeated melodies and smoothly sings the choruses, before the two intertwine oohs, aahs, and ohs to their hearts’ content.
Whilst perhaps not their strongest, it acts as a fine signpost to what they do best, preceding a run of near-timeless, self-deprecating odes to life in the shadow of love.
‘Charlyne’ involves Kattner spilling his soul with an edge of manic desperation, over an improbably jaunty two-chord piano riff. Their eponymous calling-card, the song ‘Mister Heavenly’, starts with a squelchy electro squiggle, but almost instantaneously morphs into prime new-wave power-pop, revelling in its losing streak. ‘Harm You’ is a breezy waft that begins by verging on the psychedelic but swiftly becomes borderline psychotic, the refrain ‘I won’t harm you’ sounding creepily as if the narrator is desperately trying to restrain himself, Thorburn’s angelic warble mutating to a sneer. Doom-wop indeed…
It’s all rather high-quality stuff, and hard to fault. There’s still a nagging sense of something missing, though. Perhaps it’s inevitable- as much as anyone can attempt to evoke the heyday of vocal pop genii like the Coasters, the Penguins and the Four Seasons, the period magic that is woven intrinsically into those acts’ music can only ever be alluded to by contemporary bands. Fortunately, Mister Heavenly show enough love and respect to their influences to avoid descending headlong into parody.
By way of demonstrating what happens when they slip into irreverence, check out ‘Reggae Pie’, where they ditch the doom-wop in favour of…well, you can probably guess. Not only does it ditch the blueprint as soon as they’ve established it, but it’s little more than an extended jam, pure self-indulgence set to a lazy beat. Frustratingly, it completely derails the momentum Out Of Love had built up until that point.
Thankfully, they get back on track with a blinder. ‘Pineapple Girl’ is arguably their strongest song, both lyrically and melodically, despite being rhythmically less than straightforward. Driven by a bubbling organ, a crunchy guitar and a pummelling from Plummer, it is lyrically apparently about the dubious pen-pal relationship between a 10 year old American schoolgirl and the brutal Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. The two singers play the parts, although not as you’d imagine, resulting in an enthrallingly peculiar juxtaposition of innocence and malevolence, all set to a hummable tune.
‘Diddy Eyes’ is another corker, whether it be alluding to shrew-like oracular organs or Puffy’s peepers. The harmonies coalesce perfectly with the shuffling piano motif, and Kattner’s vocal on the mammoth chorus is a joyously heart-wrenching holler. Following a track of such calibre would be tricky if it weren’t for the stunning ‘Hold My Hand’, a note-perfect, harmony-bedecked Four Seasons-a-like pop masterpiece, replete with key-changes, plenty of oohs, aahs and woohoos, and an undercurrent of malicious emotional blackmail. I make that a winner!
Alas, they simply can’t resist throwing another spanner in the works in the form of the sludgy guitar dirge ‘Doom Wop’. Though it shows another aspect of Mister Heavenly, it’s difficult to rationalise its inclusion amongst such glittering company, as it serves only to force the point in the manner of a brick to the face.
All it would take is a little more time.
Thankfully, normal service is resumed with the playful ‘Your Girl’ which liberally appropriates parts of The Smiths’ ‘Panic’, and involves Thorburn’s smooth-talking cad stealing the girlfriend of Kattner’s dejected loser. Even this cannot compare to the lush brilliance of closer ‘Wise Men’, a tear-stained, end-of-the-affair tale of woe set to perhaps their finest tune to date.
So, should our romantic heroes consider giving up the day jobs? Let’s consider the facts. Out Of Love is a good album. Mister Heavenly are a good band. These are statements it’s difficult to disagree with. As yet, though, it would take a massive leap of hyperbole to describe them as ‘great’. With a little more consistency and focus, however, they might well become worthy of that epithet. All it would take is a little more time.
Given the usual limited shelf-life of supergroups and side-projects, who knows how long they’ll be sticking around for? They evidently have a potent creative chemistry, and, at their best, they’re nigh-on unbeatable. This, however, doesn’t alter the fact that all three musicians are more likely to reap greater rewards from their established careers. They certainly shouldn’t jack in either, though, and hopefully will continue living parallel musical lives. Mister Heavenly is a bold experiment, but a largely successful one, and it can only be hoped they get to repeat it with even better results.
Out Of Love by Mister Heavenly is out now on Sub Pop