Most of the time debut albums play like first drafts. Very few bands storm out of the gate with a game-changing masterpiece. Rather, the initial release highlights weak spots that could easily be tightened up on the second try. Plus, band dynamics always seem to shift around in the first couple years and make adjustments to the songwriting process, as well. Follow-ups often paint a better-realized and more complete picture of what the band attempted to capture on the first crack.
Garnering little response after an eponymous debut in 2011—due in part to its own laggard promotion—may have been a blessing in disguise for the ‘60s rock and traditional folk throwbacks The New Red Moons. At the time, the band still needed to figure out its direction—it was basically a solo project. The under-the-radar approach helped the three-piece hone its sound out of the spotlight and reemerge stronger and more confident than before. The latest record, Mesmérisme, displays that recently discovered assurance, most of which surfaces on the album due to its newly established collaborative process.
“The first one, I was writing and arranging by myself,” says The New Red Moons guitarist and lead singer Joe McIlheran. “Whereas this one, I was writing with them [drummer Kavi Laud and bassist Jeff Brueggeman] in mind, so I was doing less—melody, lyrics. There was a lot more room for these guys to work their arranging magic as drummer and bassist.”
And the contributions from Laud and Brueggeman cannot be underscored. While McIlheran provided the framework, the two backing members filled in the gaps. Both have their musician hands deep in other local bands (Work, Great Lake Drifters), and work well at incorporating distinct moods to provide the backdrop to McIlheran’s pastoral imagery. Mesmérism relies heavily on bucolic settings to transport its listeners to different worlds.
“I don’t write about my life,” McIlheran says. “I take myself someplace else and whatever emotions need to come out, come out in an unconscious way. The lyrics come out as little novellas. Then if something honest comes out about my feelings or how my life is going, it comes out more as a subtext. A lot of where I go isn’t thinking about the dark city or a spaceship. I’m thinking about going out into the woods. I’m thinking about going to the ocean because that’s where my mind goes.”
That sense of wonder bleeds into the album title, which the band ironically discovered in an inorganic fashion: The Internet.
“We were trying to think of an album title because the first one was self-titled, and you can only do that once,” Brueggeman recalls. “We’ve had this reputation for being old timey, I was dating a girl who referred to our music as Tin Pan Alley rock. The new record is not that at all. I was searching Wikipedia and bouncing around pages looking at old timey shit, old circus shit, whatever. At some point I stumbled upon the word Mesmérisme, which I was like ‘wait a second, that’s a real cool looking word. What does it mean?’”
It’s a French translation of Mesmerism, otherwise known as animal magnetism, an 18th Century healing practice that’s equal parts mysticism and theatrics.
“It comes from Franz Mesmer, who was a scientist who turned out not to be much of a scientist. McIlheran says. “He thought you could extract animal magnetism for people as a liquid but Mesmérisme is the act of hypnotizing someone or mesmerizing them, using this animal magnetism. So you can control their thoughts or put them in a catatonic state with animal magnetism.”
The New Red Moons might not be able to control your thoughts with Mesmérisme, but one thing’s for certain: they’ve made an indelible impression on the Milwaukee music scene.
The New Red Moons celebrate the vinyl release of Mesmérisme tonight with a Club Garibaldi show at 9 p.m. The Union Suits and Steven Look open.