Release Date: Aug 16, 2011
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): R&B, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Pop, Doo Wop
After a quick introduction to Mister Heavenly, you’re not sure if this band is the result of some divine plan or a happy accident. Man Man frontman Ryan Kattner, Nick Thornburn from Islands and Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer, all apples that fell from different trees, rolled together to form Sub Pop’s new brainchild. Initially, unlikely collaborations will always attract curiosity, but if the attention remains superficial or not will depend on the caliber of sound and mass appeal.
Indie-Rock Supergroups: Sometimes they work (see: psychedelic goof-offs GAYNGS); sometimes they underwhelm (see: high-brow romantics Swan Lake); sometimes—more like rarely—they change music forever (see: Broken Social Scene). On paper, Mister Heavenly—which combines the talents of Man Man frontman Ryan Kattner, Islands mastermind Nick Thornburn and Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer—looks like an intriguing concept, but also a likely disaster. After all, Kattner (known professionally as the eloquent Honus Honus) earns his living grunting like a possessed lumberjack over indie’s quirkiest kitcken-sink rumble, while Thornburn is an indie-rock classicist with a sweet, almost anonymous voice and a stylistic palette that, even at its most exploratory, puts melody before mayhem.
Eight years ago, the smart money would've bet against Nick Thorburn becoming one of the more industrious alumni to emerge from the early-2000s Canadian indie-rock uprising-- his endearingly unstable former band, the Unicorns, could barely make it through a set without experiencing some sort of breakdown (be it technical or psychological). But while he has since emerged as the autonomous creative force behind the prog-pop ensemble Islands (tellingly, it was his face alone that graced the cover of 2009's Vapours) and recently released a low key solo album under the name Nick Diamonds (I Am an Attic), Thorburn has not forgotten what made the Unicorns so special: the alternately cheeky and tense dynamic between himself and ex-bandmate Alden Penner. As such, Thorburn has never shied away from the opportunity to match wits with a creative foil, teaming up with Jim Guthrie for the countrified Human Highway detour and, now, squaring off against Ryan Kattner-- aka Honus Honus of Philly carnival barkers Man Man-- in Mister Heavenly.
As music listeners/blog trolls/nerds, we like the idea of the “supergroup,” imagining what it would be like if Jimmy Page started playing guitar for a band fronted by a rapper (or something less lame). It’s the closest we get to playing fantasy baseball, with bassists serving as middle relief pitching, and singers first round picks. But more often than not, “supergroups” end up being less than super, and often seem like the members out to make more money together than they do apart.
Boasting perhaps the indie-est collective CV in musical history (to wit: [b]The Unicorns[/b], [b]Islands[/b], [b]Man Man[/b], [a]The Shins[/a] and [a]Modest Mouse[/a]), [a]Mister Heavenly[/a]’s debut is the sound of three seasoned band-dudes throwing off the shackles and having what sounds like a lot of fun. Leftfield guitar music par excellence you’d probably expect – and [b]‘Bronx Sniper’[/b] and [b]‘Mister Heavenly’[/b] are two near-perfect examples of the genre – but it’s the unlikely, R&B-inspired slow-jams ([b]‘Doom Wop’[/b], [b]‘Diddy Eyes’[/b]) that deliver [b]‘Out Of Love’[/b]’s gnarliest curveballs. Taken as a whole, it’s some of Nick Thorburn, Ryan Kattner and Joe Plummer’s finest work to date.
A dark take on doo-wop by an indie-supergroup is a terrible premise for an album—and referring to it as “doom wop” does little to make the case that Mister Heavenly is more than a contrivance crafted by already famous musicians, whose celebrity all-but guarantees it’s commercial success. Still it prevails. Perhaps it’s that they avoided the obvious pitfalls of recreating 1950s R&B: sappy love songs, predictable ice-cream chord changes and hokey, onomatopoeia-laced backup vocals.
We've been hearing about this "doom wop" indie supergroup featuring Islands' Nicholas Thorburn, Man Man's Honus Honus and Modest Mouse/Shins drummer Joe Plummer for a few years now, and the anticipation may have raised expectations too high. The combo sounds great on paper, and when it works you can hear its potential, but many songs come across as leftover tracks by the members' main bands forced into a new format. Part of the problem is that they didn't commit to the original concept.
On the surface, Mister Heavenly’s pedigree is enough to make them a band that’s both impossible to predict and difficult to avoid. What sound could a lineup featuring Man Man’s Ryan Kattner, Islands’ Nicholas Thorburn, and the Shins' Joe Plummer come up with that could separate them enough from their main gigs that the project would be worth it? On their debut for Sub Pop, Out of Love, the band answers just that question with a sound that shows an odd sort of reverence for the early days of rock and doo wop. With a sound that’s self-described as “doom-wop,” Mister Heavenly mine rock & roll’s formative years for inspiration, but rather than being a simple throwback band, they add their own twist by way of a dark, vaguely ominous tone.
Years ago (and we’re talking like four-five years ago), Man Man frontman Honus Honus expressed that he would one day like to work with The Unicorns/Islands mastermind Nick Thorburn. In the months and years that followed, they collaborated here and there and revealed that what they were cooking up was to be called “Doom-Wop.” And with the addition of the percussive expertise of Joe Plummer (The Shins, Modest Mouse), they had themselves a band. Beginning a supergroup side project is one thing.
Asupergroup of sorts consisting of Island/Unicorns guitarist Nick Thornburn, Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer and Man Man piano-thumper Ryan Kattner, Mister Heavenly are trumpeting "doom-wop": a blend of indie and doo-wop. It's an intriguing idea, although several songs here sound like standard spiky, new wave pop: the zippy Charlyne, for instance, could fit happily on a Strokes album. With the nasal Thornburn and raucous Kattner trading vocals and occasionally dark lyrics, some songs strive for drama but sound overegged.