The problem with layer upon layer of distortion and self-doubt that so many bands hide behind is that they start to obfuscate any purpose for the song. Too much fatalism, self-deprecation, and masking will just make you miserable, and the value of such a product inscrutable. Why bother in the first place, especially when it’s been so done before? It’s a valid question, but one the Mantles try to avoid altogether. “What We Do Matters” may come second on their self-titled debut, but it’s the first and really only statement they make. It’s loud and proud, marking directness and earnestness as a virtue. What follows backs up this claim.
The core of the Mantles’ identity lies in the singles “Don’t Lie” and “Burden,” both of which sit as the literal and figurative center of the record. Both reanimate the trebliest of riffs, “Don’t Lie” borrowing from the brighter side of late 1950s countrified rock ‘n roll and “Burden” rooting around in the darker, paranoiac side of 1970s psychedelics. They’re perfect complements, and while not necessarily anything new, certainly make for a pretty electrifying diptych. Whether day-tripping or tripping out, the Mantles provide a soundtrack that’s distinctive enough to avoid the background.
And if all the songs dabbled in these same tropes, things would be fine. Of the mid-century revivalist set, they’re certainly in the top half. But it’s when things get fast, jittery, and a little unstable that the Mantles show they’ve got a lot more under the hood than you would’ve thought. It first shows in “Disappearing Act,” a dead ringer for Is This Real?-era Wipers, particularly “Wait a Minute.” It’s a bluesy jitter, the kind you get when trying to sit through a caffeine high. There’s an urgency for movement that lurks underneath, and finally boils over on “Yesterday’s Gone.” At that point, the punk influence solidifies and a slower but no less crunchy Husker Du sound emerges, completely with a totally unhinged guitar solo.
After that, the band regains their composure and keeps it together ably but unremarkably to the end. They show they can be proficient and pleasant enough to please this generation of garage dwellers, as well as their parents. But still, there’s something … disappointing in being just good at what you do. When the Mantles drop the cool, calm and collected veneer, the songwriting become unpredictable and fixating, like watching a man possessed.