Manchester Orchestra - Mean Everything to Nothing (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Manchester Orchestra

Mean Everything to Nothing (2009)

Favorite Gentlemen / Canvasback

There seems to be two bands in the Brand New circle of friends that have received rather devastating critical acclaim while managing to hold no qualms about wearing their influences on flannel sleeves. One is Brand New themselves -- within the first three tracks of 2006's The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, you could tell that Nirvana and Modest Mouse circa The Moon & Antarctica had a considerable effect on the songwriting. Brand New got away with it, however, because they were applying just enough of a unique sheen to these tracks, and writing absolutely fantastic songs in the process. It's easy to guess who the other band is that fits this ethos to a perfectly squared 'T.'

Manchester Orchestra launch Mean Everything to Nothing with "The Only One," spinning a web of fractured guitar strums and off-key, programmed hums, filtering the fuzz of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea through a pop scope. Despite frontman Andy Hull declaring he's "the only son of a bastard" who knows the bastard too, it's the most upbeat you'll hear the band throughout Everything's course.

Sporadic influences become markedly evident on various songs that follow, but what really stuns is just how great the songs themselves are. The sarcastic joy of "The Only One" is followed by more the blatantly tense and anxious "Shake It Out"; a heightening keyboard presses and Hull spastically grates his lines towards the bridge, which suddenly drops out to let Hull, emotionally reserved for a moment's notice, mutter "I felt the lord begin / to peel off all my skin. / And I felt the weight within / reveal a bigger mess / that you can't fix." He then howls in a more optimistic fashion, guitars rising around him to suit the mood, before finally cackling the chorus line a final time, seeming to finally, well...shake it out.

"I've Got Friends" bursts with a chorus that's too much fun to sing along with, while "Pride" takes it back to slow and grueling measures. It's the type of mildly bluesy, southern-affected dirge that Colour Revolt tried on last year's Plunder, Beg, and Curse -- except, Manchester have a much more effective stab at it here.

Echoing earlier sentiments, there's a persistent influence in "In My Teeth," to the point that Hull even joked (?) in a recent interview piece that the band nearly titled it "This Song Sounds Like Nirvana and I Don't Give a Shit." Still, with an opening strum and perfect slammed transition, it works, as does the facetious Biblical ploy ("Well Jesus is coming. / Better act our age / and clean everything / and make it seem...") and stomping, shouted, overwrought chorus ("We never really needed it anyway / Yeah, we never really needed it anyway").

"100 Dollars" is a mildly bizarre interlude of sorts, a two-minute narrative with Hull's verses backed by Anathallo's Erica Froman and a slight, sudden tantrum at the end. A full five-second silence follows it, but that's fine -- it's just giving more gravity to the start of Everything's second half, which begins with "I Can Feel a Hot One." Following the explosive "I Was a Lid" on last year's teaser EP/DVD Let My Pride Be What's Left Behind, "Hot One" was a bit overshadowed. However, its layered thoughts and musical flourishes make it a standout here, as it strides carefully and with a restraint that isn't often found on Everything.

The band don't find entirely much more closure with the rest of the album. "My Friend Marcus" is essentially a part 1 title track, telling of a friend that sleeps in the narrator's basement ("his father touched more than spirit / now he can hardly sleep") -- whether that's an actual father or a priest is up for debate, one guesses -- and later busting into a chorus howling the album name. The ideas on this section of the album seem a bit more jumbled and confused, but there's plenty of musically shining moments to make up for it, along with all those world-weary-isms Hull is bemoaning that are largely uncharacteristic for his age (22).

Confoundingly consistent and vividly varied, Mean Everything to Nothing easily surpasses Manchester's previous output and provides a stark album of contrasting moods, layered fervor and modestly orchestral flow. It does lose a slight spark after a few dedicated listens and adjustments are able to be made to the gravity-inducing dropout in "Shake It Out" or the heart-tightening grip of "I Can Feel a Hot One," but it remains an exciting and considerably accomplished effort. This only being the sophomore try and Hull barely drinking age, it's a little unnerving to think what they could even conceive later on.

Mean Everything to Nothing