What they do matters

johnny@sfbg.com

Something is happening. San Francisco and the greater Bay Area is, even more than usual, home to some bands that hardwire the heart: Grass Widow, Nodzzz, Rank/Xerox, Mayyors, Ty Segall. But more than that, the place we call home is a nexus for a bunch of great new rock albums — ones that just might be classics. Girls’ Album (True Panther/Matador) is the popular one with the media blitz behind it, but the Mantles’ debut is the come-from-behind outsider, the secret star, the crushworthy keeper. You’ll know it when you hear it, from the one-two-three punch of the first trio of tracks: the Byrds-y jangle of "Disappearing Act"; the churning propulsive energy of "What We Do Matters"; and maybe most of all, the brooding balladry of "Look Away," a now-I-see-you-now-I-don’t relationship ode which possesses a kind of offhand melodic and vocal strength that sounds easy to achieve, but obviously isn’t, because so few ever manage to do it.

Those are some of the things that go into The Mantles (Siltbreeze), along with guitar blazes (the climactic "Thin Reminder") and the overall feel of a band as a thriving living thing. What went on outside the album is an entirely different story. The group recorded with Greg Ashley in Oakland, where the adventures often began before they entered the studio. "One day this cracked-out lady walked up and punched this other lady in the face right in front of our car," says drummer Virginia Weatherby. "There’s a giant pile of trash right in front of his [Ashley’s] door," chimes in bassist Matt Roberts. "This one afternoon I showed up and there was a guy by it wearing no shirt and a Yoda mask — it was totally absurd."

Fueled by friendship and romance, the Mantles are relaxed enough to enjoy absurdity, whether it arrives in the form of a shirtless dude in a Yoda mask or entails playing the role of "psychedelic band" and "mid-tempo downer" at a sweltering garage rock party where people are doing cannonballs into a pool. If anything, the group was too relaxed for Ashley’s spontaneous and live-sounding recording process, an achievement of sorts. "You think you have the situation figured out on the third day of recording," says vocalist-guitarist Mike Oliveras, as the group discusses the different facets of Ashley’s home studio and warehouse setup, where graffiti and ciggies floating in glasses of beer are one norm. "Then he [Ashley] comes down with a bounty of nice-looking tomatoes and says, Do you guys want any tomatoes? These are from my garden on the roof."

The Mantles is being released by Siltbreeze, a pairing that should yield interesting results. The pop immediacy of the group’s songs might make them seem a good fit for Berkeley’s Slumberland, even if they tend to rock a bit more vigorously and wildly than many groups on Mike Shulman’s rightfully vaunted label. A standout track like the easygoing, assured "Don’t Lie" — understated yet almost anthemic at the close — is more melodic than most music released by Siltbreeze owner Tom Lax, whose enthusiasm came from hearing the first of the group’s two 7-inch singles to date. "There’s a certain amount of people who will buy it [the album] because it’s on Siltbreeze," Roberts says. "And there’s a certain amount of people who will specifically not buy it because it’s on Siltbreeze."

Fortunately, The Mantles is the kind of album that defies expectations. Its shades of New Zealand-ry (an organ sound and laconic vocal delivery not far from Flying Nun groups such as the Chills and the Verlaines), its Paisley Underground touches (some reviewers have mentioned Steve Wynn and Dream Syndicate), and its better-than-NME‘s-C86-cassette pop appeal seem very au courant, but come across as natural as breathing. Oliveras’ vocal presence is both a weapon and a major reason for this — he’s got more confidence and presence than your average rocker, yet he never falls into cringeworthy or over-the-top rock star gestures. There’s no T.T.H. (tries-too-hard) to his or the band’s approach. This forthright pleasure and assurance might have grown from the group’s recording experiences to date, which range from the experimentation and live takes of Ashley to the precision and attention to detail of Papercuts’ Jason Quever, who produced one of their singles.

Along with friendship and romance, family plays a role in the Mantles’ music — not corny Christian family values, but a bond with family members that’s taken a variety of funny forms during the group’s existence. "At [a show at] Café Du Nord, my mom said she wanted a drink, and when I told her to go to the bar, she said, It’s not my milieu," says Roberts to much laughter. He lists his favorite show to date as one the group did for Oliveras’ family: "There was an audience of six people on patio chairs sitting 20 yards away from us," he says.

"The Mantles: Being Earnest," Oliveras jokes.

The Mantles has the arresting look required of a vinyl-only release, thanks to a stark and handsome design by local musician Nathan Berlinguette, art by Colter Jacobsen, and another family touch: the photo on the album’s cover. As evocative in a nostalgic way as the cover of Night Control’s Death Control (Kill Shaman) is in a 2009 manner, it’s a picture of a man holding a picture — a photo of Jimi Hendrix. The man, standing in front of a gorgeous mountain-lined horizon, is Weatherby’s father. "My dad is beside himself," she says with a smile. "He went to one of our shows recently and was walking around saying, Album Cover Guy’s here. Want to meet the album cover?"

THE MANTLES

Album release party

Oct. 1

Eagle Tavern

398 12th St, SF

(415) 626-0880

www.myspace.com/mantles