Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Endless Now and the Introversion of Male Bonding

Douglas Martin does not recommend Male Bonding as an adhesive. In spite of being repeatedly referred to as such, Nothing Hurts...
By    August 30, 2011

Douglas Martin does not recommend Male Bonding as an adhesive.

In spite of being repeatedly referred to as such, Nothing Hurts (/2010/05/10/douglas-martins-dirty-shoes-male-bonding-gets-to-the-point-and-fast/)– Male Bonding’s forty-yard dash of a debut record– was not lo-fi. All the hallmarks were in place, though: the gnashing guitars, the skittering cymbals, the ear-piercing feedback.

But those aspects were delivered with a (slight) clarity that belies the tag that was placed squarely on the band’s shoulders; they were more a catchy punk band that could have feasibly opened for Superchunk or Archers of Loaf in the early-90’s than most of the bands around right now who proudly wear their shoddy recording quality like a faux-vintage beer t-shirt from Urban Outfitters. This makes it very fitting that Weezer brain trust Rivers Cuomo tapped the band to write a song for his band, presumably paying the band in young Asian groupies to do so.

Nothing Hurts was carried by abrasion, swiftness, and brevity, its instruments loudly charging toward a brick wall, its frontman (singer / guitarist John Arthur Webb) finding his paper-thin voice buried in the din of treble, his bubblegum-punk melodies still managing to find a way to stick to the back of your brain. By the band’s own admission, the sound quality of their debut left a little to be desired. So they packed their bags, hopped aboard a plane overseas to Woodstock, New York, and recorded new album Endless Now with John Agnello (who has engineered albums for Male Bonding heroes Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth). Male Bonding has always managed to appeal to the 120 Minutes crowd, so their choice in producers isn’t incredibly surprising.

A band tempering their sound with the polish of studio recording is always a gamble; it can either highlight a band’s best qualities or expose their shortcomings in blinding light. And with a band like Male Bonding– one so reliant on brisk pacing and the volume dial being pushed drastically into the red– Endless Now could have honestly gone either way.

Opener “Tame the Sun” starts the album exactly how you’d expect a Male Bonding record to start, with a simple bass riff followed by a thrashy forward surge. But a surprise comes when Webb’s vocals kick in: his back-of-the-room shout-singing is replaced with a calmer lower register placed at the forefront of the mix. This introverted croon coasts throughout the album, the lack of force making it easy to lose upon the first few listens.

Couple that with the fact that musically the band treads through the overly familiar waters of pop-punk, and you have an album that could potentially get lost in the shuffle. Webb’s introvertedness manifests itself differently here than on Nothing Hurts. There, it was faux-boisterous punk rock with its frontman hiding behind the microphone. Here, it’s punk rock made explicitly for shy kids; the ones who sat in the middle of the class so their name would hardly ever be called.

But never underestimate the staying power of a good simple melody. The trio employs a bit of subtlety usually uncommon among bands of their stripe, and the vocals and quickly-strummed power chords manage to burrow their way inside your head, leaving you to hum highlights like “Carrying” and “Can’t Dream” long after they infiltrate your consciousness. “Bones” starts out as ponderous initially, as it’s six and a half minutes and hosts the same chord progression throughout. After a couple of spins of the album, however, it feels far shorter than it actually is, courtesy of its driving pace and anxiety, feeling like the band bracing for a climax that never actually comes.

With all of the squall and sprawl, there’s a fitting irony in the fact that the album’s shortest song is also its slowest. Though both songs share the same sparse acoustic guitar, “The Saddle” is different from Nothing Hurts closer “Worse to Come” in the idea that the former is actually a ballad, augmented by lovelorn piano and Webb’s quiet, melancholy vocals. “Dig You Out,“ the record’s penultimate track and final full song, takes a chord progression seemingly ripped out of the Blink-182 playbook, renders it even poppier by using jaunty handclaps, and repeats the chorus for the final two minutes of the song like a mantra. The album as a whole couldn’t have been released at a better time, as most of it feels like the waning days of summer, with the sun blazing brightly before tucking in behind the clouds in autumn and kids getting their last few rail grinds at the skate park before school starts.

Male Bonding is the textbook definition of a “pretty good band.” Upon my first run-through of Endless Now, I wholly meant that to be an insult. Nobody can assert that they’re doing anything innovative, and being as though there are no particular qualities in which they stand out, it’s easy and justifiable for people to describe the band as “generic”. But as the record started growing on me, I realized how abundantly catchy they are, how familiar their songs feel– like you’ve heard these songs before and remember that they hit a sweet spot. So Male Bonding is definitely nothing less and nothing more than a “pretty good band,” but there’s something to be said for modest victories.

MP3: Male Bonding-“Tame the Sun”
MP3: Male Bonding-“Bones”

MP3: Male Bonding-“Franklin”
MP3: Male Bonding-“Year’s Not Long”

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