Call them a supergroup if you’d like, but the fact is that none of the dudes in Mister Heavenly needed to start another band; they’ve already found success in the indie music world. But thank god they did anyway. Nick “Diamonds” Thorburn of the Unicorns and Islands, Ryan Kattner of Man Man and Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse got together and created a genre they call “doom wop,” incorporating elements of the vocal style and lyrical themes of '50s doo wop. But y’know, with more doom.
I’ve always been a fan of bands with two vocalists, and Thorburn and Kattner make for an interesting pair. Thorburn’s slightly nasal delivery and Kattner’s gruff bark seem, on paper, to be incompatible. But the two play off their strengths well, sharing leads within a song and knowing which parts of songs suit their voices best. They ricochet off each other on call-and-response sections and also harmonize surprisingly well.
The bouncy piano of standout track “I Am a Hologram” lightens Kattner’s rough melody, leading into a harmonized Thorburn breakdown, and later the two weave melodies together. The shuffling “Charlyne” clicks along briskly with playful '50s rock guitar interjections, climaxing in sustained cries of "Charlyne! / And I always play the fool for Charlyne."
One of the best examples of this “doom wop” thing would be “Diddy Eyes,” which finds Thorburn playing the classic backup singer role while Kattner alternates spooky verses with upbeat choruses complete with handclaps and that classic surf beat. With two strong songwriters on board and working together, songs can shift directions radically. “Harm You” starts off quite menacing but leads to cheery harmonies. Usually this approach works well, but on the album’s title track, it just sounds like a Man Man song ran head-on into an Islands song.
Overall, the songwriting partnership is a benefit to both parties. I love everything Thorburn has done, but on the last Islands record (2009’s Vapours) he was essentially on his own, and the results were pleasant though a little uninspired. While I’m not a huge Man Man fan, I like that their more recent stuff has taken a slightly more straightforward approach, and this lends well to Mister Heavenly. They leave the “doom wop” thing pretty open-ended, with some tracks being merely lyrically inspired by the era rather than sonically, but some songs here sound pretty straight-up “indie,” like the Wolf-Parade-ish “Bronx Sniper.” Then there’s the creepy reggae stomp of the appropriately titled “Reggae Pie,” and ironically the least doo-wop of all, the track called “Doom Wop.”
Creating a genre for inspiration, then defying their own genre, Mister Heavenly craft a thoroughly enjoyable album. I hope that what started as a lark continues on with future releases.