A few words about that immovable object of the music biz, the industry hype machine. On the grassroots level, it is perpetrated by the entertainment writer, the most lazy and unimaginative of all cultural charlatans. Thus, the epithets that are first bandied about to describe a specific artist are generally the ones that tend to stick, regardless of accuracy.
Second, unless the artist is part of some major-label promotion spend-a-thon (aka the Alanis Morissette Doctrine), whatever buzz is flying around really means little in terms of dividends. Coverage in the Akron Beacon Journal does not necessarily translate into overnight success.
Which brings us to Chicago's Mannequin Men. Currently bouncing ingloriously in a rental van from one small club to the next, they also find themselves riding an upward swell of critical praise. Denizens of that shadowy middle ground between hard-working bar band and impending underground sweethearts, the Men remain grounded despite the spate of recent notice.
"We're at an interesting point where there are opportunities opening up to us," bassist Myles Raymer says. "We're Midwesterners, so we're extremely pragmatic about it. The fact of the matter is we aren't too far removed from those tours where we made $20 a night."
Since forming in late 2003, the Mannequin Men (named in tribute to the Wire song "Mannequin") became an immediate hometown sensation on the strength of their live show and a supposed reputation as hard-drinking, fun-loving punk fuckups. Their first release, 2005's Showbiz Witch, recorded in one day, was a raw slab of uproar that reached back to the angular punk of bands like Television, Gary Numan's Tubeway Army, and a sizable chunk of the SST Records back catalog. Sophomore release Fresh Rot, while winning the band a larger following, was lumped into the "garage" oeuvre, even though the foursome found inspiration in the Wipers and Television alongside the Kinks and Pixies. And, despite its growth, the band somehow managed to retain a reputation with the tastemakers as a pack of unrefined dopes with a drinking problem and a Replacements fetish.
"We really work against the idea we're just drunk, sloppy punk rock, but people like to lock a band into their perception," Raymer says. "We're interested in a lot of other things than just banging out two chords. We're developing as musicians. It happens."
Which brings us to the newly released Lose Your Illusion, Too. Though it still draws upon the heady days of punk rock yesteryear ("Rathole," "I Don't Care") the Mannequin Men have also opted for big hooks, overdubs, and even a stab at a ballad with the surprisingly great "Kinda Babes." In the end, Illusion owes much more to Tom Petty's Heartbreakers than Johnny Thunders'. While the (mostly positive) reviews pour in, weighing the album's virtues as a punk, or a garage, or an indie-rock artifice, there's one thing nobody seems to want to call it, which is exactly what it is: a straight-ahead, no-frills, zero-agenda rock 'n' roll album by an uncomplicated rock 'n' roll band. It's easy music for good times.
"Fun is a huge motivating factor for us, music that makes you dance," Raymer says. "A lot of these indie-rock bands go into self-awareness as default mode. It's like they're on stage texting or doing homework."
It doesn't really matter whether the hype pans out for the Mannequin Men, as the band members have paid their dues for six years and a gig is still a gig, no matter the details. Or, as Raymer puts it, "We have good nights, and we love those good nights. We'll still play a shitty show in Ohio to three people — but we'll play hard!"