Last year, Brooklyn quintet The Men trekked upstate, set up camp in a house in the tiny hamlet of Big Indian, NY, and finally let their inner Crazy Horse and Tom Petty hang loose. They emerged, eventually, with New Moon, a rootsy affair that gradually revealed itself to be the group’s best work yet. Now, six or seven months later, they’ve given it a gratuitous, though not unwelcome, coda: Campfire Songs, a collection of five acoustic tracks so titled because — yes — they were reportedly recorded while sitting around a campfire by that upstate house. The title so fittingly encapsulates the earnest earthiness that cropped up on New Moon, it’s a shame they didn’t think of it in time for the album itself.
At any rate, Campfire Songs arrives as a quiet, prodding reminder of just how excellent New Moon was. That’s in part a triumph of shrewd timing — instead of issuing the EP immediately, the band waited half a year or so, when you may well have forgotten — but also of song selection: the EP’s first and best two tracks are culled straight from the album. Unanchored from its rousing electric climb, New Moon centerpiece “I Saw Her Face” still sounds like the Zuma epic that never was, a weary, early dawn singalong made messier by the thick, overlapping layers of acoustic guitars. “The Seeds”, meanwhile, puts one of the band’s craftiest melodies on display, though it doesn’t travel so far from the strummy album cut to get here, unless you count the unashamed solo noodling that closes out the track. You do, on each of these tracks, have to cope with the warbled mix that results from recording around a campfire — pushing Mark Perro’s vocals well to the distant back of the mix.
The non-album tracks are a jumbled bag. “Water Babies”, which appeared as a B-side in January, is about as goldenly melodic as “The Seeds” and similar in tone; this time Perro sounds a bit more like J. Mascis singing through a sweater. The final two are entirely unheard, though at more than six minutes each, the band was wise to leave them off the record: “Turn Your Color” is the sort of soupy drone piece The Men largely abandoned after Open Your Heart, its elements rendered further inscrutable by the thick campfire mix, and the fittingly titled “Patience” drags even longer on the basis of call-and-response harmonies that never quite seem to translate outside the live (or outside) setting.
At its best, Campfire Songs is a modest document of the spirit and atmosphere that produced New Moon. Easy as it is to write about it from my apartment in Brooklyn, that’s probably not where it sounds best, all of which is to say: I want a trip upstate too, now.
Essential Tracks: “I Saw Her Face”, “The Seeds”