Mister Heavenly, some would say, is an unlikely amalgam of musicians. The super group trio consists of Ryan Kattner, better known as Honus Honus of Man Man; Nick Thorburn, also known as Nick Diamonds of The Unicorns and Islands; and Joe Plummer, drummer for Modest Mouse. Unlikely or not, with their debut album Out of Love, they are a welcome breath of fresh air to the indie scene.
The brilliance of Out of Love is its uniquely wacky combination of frivolity and heartfelt seriousness. This band is in the business of love songs, and no one today brings more originality to the love song than the Honus-Thorburn writing team. They jokingly call their music “doom wop,” but doom wop is no joke; it’s the real deal. The album is dripping with fifties doo wop influence, but while the piano bounces and the guitar riffs twang, the lyrics anchor the songs with their sophistication. With Man Man, Honus has been one of indie rock’s top lyricists, and he’s, dare I say it, even more heavenly with his new buddies.
On “I Am a Hologram,” behind an infectious piano/guitar combo (the first of many), Honus boasts, “I am a hologram / modern version of a shell of a man.” On “Charlyne,” he croons, “When push comes to love / you just ain’t strong enough / to let it go.” On “Reggae Pie,” Honus and Thorburn chant in tandem, “She kiss like a brick / her lips are like ships / just sail right through the thoughts you harbor,” a funky bass synth grooving in the background. These songs come from the heart, and no two sound alike.
Still, the Honus-Thorburn combo isn’t flawless. I would have preferred Thorburn’s voice to Honus’ on “Charlyne,” and I’d rather Honus took the reins on “Harm You” than Thorburn. A few songs are also a little rough around the edges, like the grungy, funky “Reggae Pie,” or “Doom Wop,” the only song on the album with any bit of punk influence. But rather than tarnish the album, these songs give it all the more character, the unmistakable stamp of a Kattner project. And although the collaboration is somewhat awkward in spots, the successes overwhelm the blunders.
Man Man tend to scare first-time listeners with hardly tamed experimentation, and Thorburn’s projects can get a little tedious after too many listens. (Check out Thorburn’s recent pay-what-you-want album here for an idea). But when the two come together, Honus suddenly becomes a bit more accessible, and Thorburn gets a little wilder. Throw in one of rock ‘n roll’s best drummers in Plummer, and you’ve got an album that’s both genuine and fun. “I Am a Hologram” is a terrific example of their abundant chemistry, as is “Reggae Pie” when the song fades out only to fade back, presumably because the bandmates can’t resist another thirty seconds of spooky jamming.
If Mister Heavenly are anything, they’re three talented musicians having way too much fun. Lines like “Cut me off a slice of that reggae pie” and “you’ll never be my pineapple girl” couldn’t be delivered with more zest. These sorts of antics remind us much fun these three are having together, but they also balance the heavier themes that haunt the album. In his unmistakable hoarse warble, one moment Honus sings, “I don’t desire to be a clueless creature / just waltzing through the woods waiting to get eaten,” and the next he cries, “All alone in the middle of the night / I could have sworn I did everything right / so how come she’s now your girl?” These moments are doom wop at its best.
The album ends with a candid ballad about a lost love, which itself ends with an abrupt final line: “And I’ll throw caution to the wind / and bury my love inside quick-drying cement / and swim across this bottomless ocean / but if you’re standing on the shores / please don’t wake me up.” The sudden ending makes me wonder if Mister Heavenly will ever be back for more. If not, we will always have Out of Love, an enigmatic album from Mister Heavenly, a band I fear may garner much less attention than it deserves.
– Adam Greenberg