For fans of: Hey Mercedes, The Promise Ring, The Get Up Kids, The Pixies
I can still remember being on a Blink 182 chat room after “The Rock Show” had been released and being told to listen to “Bells” by Hey Mercedes by some jerk. “Blink sucks, listen to ‘Bells’ by Hey Mercedes” was the exact phrase. Enema of the State had been out long enough for Blink’s oldest fans to really come to terms with their selling-out, and compounded by the integrity purists who said Blink sucked from the beginning, I was eager to prove that a). Blink was awesome and b). I could listen to this “better” band without switching allegiances.
Well whoever it was that told me to listen to “Bells” was right, it was way better than Blink. This was in the era of KaZaa, when you’d have to download albums song-by-song, comparing your tracklist with the Amazon product page, making sure you had the right songs by comparing lyrics on songmeanings.com to what you could make out on the mp3. I downloaded every single Hey Mercedes song available at the time, listening to them on repeat as they downloaded. Hey Mercedes would be my first experience with the standard indie music teen snob half-life: Discover a band no one knows, obsessively listen to their meager creative output, simultaneously scold the ignorant while coveting the album, only to have the band break up before producing enough music to satiate the angsty void in the pit of your stomach.
And it wasn’t that I stopped liking Blink, but it just wasn’t the same after Hey Mercedes. I’d heard the real, uncut stuff, and to go back to the watered-down tripe they allow on the radio was no longer an option. Of course, that’s not really fair to Blink. Hey Mercedes was pop-punk only in the most general of classifications. What I had really discovered was that I liked the nebulous and ill-defined genre of EMO, and this opened the door to Northstar, American Football, Clarity, et al. Despite the protestations of my philistine high school friends, emo didn’t suck, and these guys proved it, even if emo would become something totally different by the time I was moving on from it in college four years later.
Flash forward over a dozen years to today. When I first put on Manatree’s eponymous album from Spotify’s discover section, I was not expecting to feel that same paradoxical teenage love for it. One part “How is everyone not in love with this?” one part “IT’S MINE YOU CANT HAVE IT”. It was immediate. As soon as you drop the digital needle on “Fat Jackson” you are propelled into that hormonal need for velocity that is only captured in aimless drives at top speed down the closest highway. It’s not a matter of playing as fast as they can a la The Ramones, but of constructing that ineffable urgency like the music from F-Zero. It makes your toes tap and butt sway even as you sit at your desk or lounge on your couch.
Manatree is a magical garage band, like Little Pete’s ephemeral favorite band in “Hard Day’s Pete,” imbued with a youthful exuberance that belies a hyperintelligent focus on craft and band tightness. Also, they still have a Pure Volume account, so yeah, tug at those nostalgic heartstrings, kids. Like my beloved Sleepwalkers, Manatree hails from Richmond, VA, leading me to wonder what awesome thing is happening there, at the moment. Forming in 2009 when they were still in middle school (yes, you are that old), they made do with a makeshift drumset and hand-me-down amps to play their favorite songs. By the time they were high school froshes, they had two EPs. They graduated having toured with the likes of Real Estate and Surfer Blood. I don’t know if they’re in college but my hope and assumption is no. I also don’t know if their moniker is a reference to the Mana video game series or a cleverish bastardization of everyone’s favorite endangered sea mammal.
Put Manatree in a random playlist of the three bands I listed and you’d never know these guys were still wetting the bed when their predecessors were calling it quits. Of the influences listed on their website, the most stylistically obvious is the Pixies. This is stealing instead of imitating at its finest. The band does the Pixies thing perfectly without ripping it off, particularly in songs like “Static” and “All Our Old Friends” (again, these guys can’t even rent a car), layering their own brand of math pop into every microsecond of music not supporting vocals. I don’t love the concept of math rock as much as I love the music. It’s hard for me to think of a genre that groups together King Crimson, American Football, and Converge, but there it is. Math strikes me as more of a nerd’s touch to his or her preferred genre, a spice instead of food. These guys are Pythagorean paprika; they’re Cartesian cayenne.
According to their Facebook page, they’re debuting new songs at their upcoming live shows. That’s quick work for a band that only released their first LP a year ago, especially considering that Manatree is itself comprised of rerecorded versions of old songs as well as more recent compositions. But strife has its way of being a creative boon, and a year of touring, being an early 20-something, and replacing a longtime friend and bandmate are sure to produce some good pieces. So long as the don’t go the way of Hey Mercedes, I’m happy.