In the role of carnival barker, The End Men’s mouthpiece Matthew Hendershot beckons us into his tent of musical curiosity at the beginning of the New York duo’s second release. His voice is curiously like that of Tom Waits with its gravelly tone, a comparison heightened by the sideshow setting, while the minimalist music recalls spiritual chants of the deep south. The setting isn’t original, but no other backdrop best highlights the journey on which the listener is about to embark… “If you join us, I promise you this: an adventure you won’t wanna miss.”
Tom Waits is superb – people pretending to be Tom Waits always appear far less impressive. Thankfully, some of the music that follows is far less Waitsian; some of the vocals, too, find their own place beyond mere imitation with their own scratchy appeal, even though a Tom homage (or Tomage, if you will) never seems too far around the next corner. With a heavy backbeat, the duo swiftly launch into ‘Run Away’, a hefty blues workout, pushing the rough end of Hendershot’s vocal. With squalls of feedback and a dirty groove, the mood is one of a back alley White Stripes panhandling for change. The riff has a great presence, but the real star during this number is Livia Ranalli, whose live sounding drums have plenty of weight, carrying an excellent groove throughout. Her drums sound good when backing the runs of blues guitar, but they sound great when standing alone against Hendershot’s voice. If this grabs you, the rest of the album ought to throw a few you more than a few more interesting musical bones.
A particular standout, ‘It’s All Wrong’ taps into some severe fuzz, where the vocals shout between slightly disjointed musical motifs. With a high shriek, Ranalli leads this tune down a tough musical path, her drumming hard and simple on the surface, but closer inspection reveals flourishes of percussion keeping things nice and angular, often in a way Meg White just could never manage. Hendershot meanwhile sounds like a man channelling an old blues dropout jamming with The Dead Exs. This is a superb – if a little short – groover which shows the band in an excellent light. ‘Wrong Way Street’ explores the band’s love of a bluesy groove even further, mixing the straight up riffs with a little funkiness. While not too out of the ordinary, the sassiness recalling Mark Sandman’s Treat Her Right meeting the directness of many garage blues bands of the past makes this the perfect tune for a first time listener.
The off kilter ‘Into The Mines’ explores the duo’s love for all things slightly Weill-esque via a dark waltz, part Tom Waits, part Primus, all threat. The sinister waltzing tune is loaded with ugly rhythm guitar work; coupled with a lead vocal that growls and croons as if Les Claypool has been possessed by Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, this remains one of the album’s more memorable theatrical pieces. Less enjoyable, ‘Mental Trapeze’ takes such circus themed theatrics and pushes them too far. At first sounds as if Hendershot is going to allow us a glimpse into the more natural end of his vocal range with something a tad smoother. This is fleeting, as before long he’s in there rasping like something may just burst. Lending a softer tone, Ranalli brings a quiet counter vocal, but once the duo settle for bonkers carnival inspired interludes, it’s all a bit too heavy handed, despite a few nice percussive flourishes and an unrestrained guitar break. It’s always obvious where The End Men are aiming with this particular piece…but you’ll find similar music achieving far more enjoyable results elsewhere.
Finishing this unsettling second journey around The End Men’s dark imagination, ‘Stack Chips’ presents Hendershot crooning against a quietly strummed guitar for almost three and a half minutes, teasing the listener into wondering if there’s something big around the corner. …And briefly there is, as the drums crash in, with a counter vocal and some huge clanging chords, as if The End Men have tapped into an unreleased White Stripes recording and chosen to reinterpret it with menace. This push and pull between quiet and loud occurs a second time, pulling the track in at a mammoth seven minutes – minutes which tick by slowly, though never without pleasure – and with that The End Men leave us to contemplate their circus of the mind.
At the beginning of the album, the band claims that “it’s only a show”, but what a show it was. Sure, it’s hard going – even patience testing – at times, but even with a few mis-steps, its rawness and passion can be pretty captivating.