Man Man – [Album]

Monday, 06 June 2011

It might be regarded as an inconvenient truth but, looking at the state of modern rock, it's hard not to notice that songwriting and the themes employed have grown a little stale. Since Nirvana broke into the mainstream twenty years ago, it has become common to hear bands stick safely within pop forms (verse-chorus-verse indeed) but tease listeners by daringly adding a few offbeat or underground proclivities to twist their sound and make it attractive to proudly counterculture-identified types. This fact is not brought to light here to condemn the position in which rock has rested, it's just worth mentioning that such designs are used so regularly now that they could be regarded as the standard creative tradition.

With rock twisting itself in exactly the same way so regularly now and essentially using “rebellion” as little more than a token badge to flash, one has to wonder – what must a band do to make a truly rebellious noise? What Man Man has done on its fourth full-length (second for ANTI–), Life Fantastic, is throw the “pop” out altogether and focus its attention on about fifty years-worth of sub-cult and underground fascinations; creating an all-new and provocative, glittering monster in the process.

Even with the knowledge of what Life Fantastic holds in store betrayed, listeners will still be floored by the album because there is no methodical build-up or lead-in as “Knuckle Down” opens the album, listeners are just thrown headfirst into an abstract sea of growling synths, stringy guitars and clamoring drums. The proceeding is troubled and choppy but brilliant, colorful and clear as singer Ryan Kattner introduces himself and his three-ring shit show with dramatic flourishes of exotic movement. Here, it's easy to discern who Man Man was looking to and drawing inspiration from as the music unfolds; there is the cartoonish color and mania of Captain Beefheart backed by the enormous orchestrations and manipulations of Frank Zappa (you can almost hear Jimmy Carl Black pipe up as he once did to remind you that he is indeed the indian of this inventive mother) and all swirling around singer/composer Kattner – this sound's controller and the owner of the voice which barks so loud, it generates both the wind and the waves on this scene.

Did you notice a single straight pop music reference in that landslide reader? Get used to it and buckle up.

Man Man doesn't pause for a breather after setting the scene with “Knuckle Down,” in fact, the band immediately sets to stirring up a kooky maelstrom of clashing images and emotional states. Tracks including “Piranhas Club,” “Haute Tropique,” “Shameless,” “Spooky Jookie” and “Bangkok Necktie” all just spew forth vibrantly on listeners and then collapse to make room for the band to do the same thing all over again in a different color; leaving listeners to scramble and clean up the mess, of try to make sense of it. Because of that breakneck drive and the number of directions in which each song spins listeners, there's no way to pin down a clear theme which might bind Life Fantastic's eleven tracks together, but there's no arguing that they sit well as sympathetic entities. The glitter produced by multi-instrumentalists Christopher Powell, Jamey Robinson, Billy Dufala and Jefferson is contrasted by the doom undeniable in Kattner's husky voice, and each of the songs wears that combination as its signature; the result is a bizarre form of experimental rock that borders on – but does not submit to – cabaret and part of the fun in listening is observing how close the music teeters toward that as well as how far and in which directions it arcs away.

So, four albums in, what more does Life Fantastic reveal about Man Man to titillate listeners? Because the methodology behind each of these songs revolves around acts of obsturantism, the short and easy answer is “not much” but, truly, the joy and pleasure is in the experiencing of the record. On Life Fantastic, Man Man gives a few more clues to how deep their annex of the rabbit hole goes, and will thrill listeners who are tired of pop orthodoxy and crave something awesome.



Life Fantastic is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .


Man Man – [Album]

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Before I knew any better, I asked Honus Honus (Ryan Kattner) a rather innocuous question after one of his band’s harrowing 2006 sets showcasing the Tom Waits/Frank Zappa/Gogol Bordello Molotov cocktail that is Six Demon Bag. “Where are you guys from?” I asked with a toothy grin on my face after just witnessing Sergei Sogay (Chris Sharr), Pow Pow (Christopher Powell), Critter Crat (Russell Higbee), and Chang Wang (Billy Dufala) and the aforementioned Honus, sway, crash and careen through a spastic line of songs. I wasn’t sure what I had just heard but I knew Honus’ answer was sufficient: “outer space.” Not far off at all.

Man Man are actually from Philadelphia, but I like to think their third batch of jazzy swamp vaudeville songs seeped out of some jukebox in space. It makes my head hurt less trying to categorize their music, and I can then move on to appreciating their watertight candor, gonzo percussion and unflinching doggedness.

For those that pointed at The Man In a Blue Turban With a Face's lo-fi spry naïveté as a flaw (Honus sure did) Six Demon Bag shot out its signal flares of relational disparity with a mature and focused flair for the gloom. “Van Helsing Boombox” saw dejected honky tonk piano sobbing under Honus’ hoarse balladry. One line broke the hearts of critics and fans alike: “I want to sleep like a dog at her feet, even though I know it won’t work out in the long run”

Rabbit Habits is an amalgamation of what’s come before it. It contains a conscious turn towards soulful balladry the only way Man Man can can—with white face paint sheerness and jazzy gallivanting. Did I mention that the band’s not always serious? The three-ring circus begins with a hilarious blender of noise and falsetto band chant on the rapid fire “Mister Jung Stuffed.” It’s so easy to say this about Man Man, but it really is everything and the kitchen sink. Honus has always had a penchant for soulful female singers (see Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” or Malvina Reynold’s silly political activist dynamo “Little Boxes”). This infatuation creeps into his band on “Stuffed” and the witch’s cauldron of lyrics sung on xylophone-heavy “The Ballad of Butter Beans.”

“Big Trouble,” (formerly named “Zombie”) starts ominously. Its hair-raising trumpets traipse through a swamp of xylophone and sounds of falling percussion. Man Man pull their Zappa-isms with their own distinct flair, moving beyond rote appropriation because of the heart beyond all the beards and white face paint.

They prove that after “Mysteries of the Universe Unraveled”’s 11-second fireworks display leading into the solo Rhodes ballad, “Doo Right.” With his vocals screeching over the precipice of ennui, Honus sings about being outside a lover’s window “throwing bricks at the moon” and wanting to hold said lover “until the mountains turn into sand.” This bruised peach also has a little mold on it, and the song is better because of it.

The title track is also a quick piano ballad, accompanied by saxophone. It’s a jaunty affair that’s over too soon. The emphasis is still on Pow Pow’s clattering percussion on tracks like the advance track, “Top Drawer,” with plenty of cymbal crashes and chants about hot dogs. After that it's Koyannisquatsi vs. a gypsy street band for the finish line.

On an album that flits from synthy space-cum-spy soundtracks (“El Azteca”) vaudevillian police siren tromps (“Easy Eats or Dirty Doctory Galapapagos”) and surf rock tribalism (Harpoon Fever (Queequeg’s Playhouse)”), it's easy to assume Rabbit Habits’ closing tracks will follow suit. With two 7-minute plus epics, “Poor Jackie” and “Whalebones,” what we get is truly unexpected. The multiple musical movements of “Jackie” follow what is ostensibly a female Jack the Ripper story. The best part about both songs is how Man Man peels off elements of the song with each passing movement, leaving the vocal/or instrumental husk for the outré.

Rabbit Habits is a chest beating musical statement, devoid of timidity. Honus’ vocals sound at turns cartoonish and heartfelt, without being cloying or mawkish. It truly heralds Man Man as more than a mangy clown car of party-favor sounds. Habits stamps them as rightful progenitors of one of the spiritual tenants of the vaudevillian tradition: variety over similarity, but never experiment over emotion. This gregarious outer space outfit is hanging all their hopes on their hearts, and boy, does it feel great.

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