Man Man: “Life Fantastic”

Man Man is a profoundly weird band– and it’s not just that they’re weird, it’s that they’re weird in a way no other band is weird, at least no other band making a ruckus in 2011. They’re not stoners, at least as far as I’m aware. They’re not postmods, and they’re not hipsters. They’re not revivalists– thank Heavens– and their records share no common bonds with the glitchy electronics of so many of their peers. Man Man’s brand of weirdness is more like an old-fashioned spin on showmanship, the kind of theatrical panache that hearkens back to the days of vaudeville– to a time when “novelty” wasn’t another words for “gimmicks,” but rather was something any entertainer simply had to have in order to draw an audience.

In other words, the “weirdness” of Man Man is not for its own sake– not ever. It’s a way of drawing listeners in, getting them to peak inside the curtain sectioning off the band’s own personal Big Top spectacle. The circus metaphor is apt, actually– their live shows are flamboyantly Ringling Brothers-esque, and their love of repetition, rhyme, and alliteration (check the band members’ performing names: Honus Honus, Pow Wow, Chang Wang, and T. Moth) are suggestive of a carnival barker’s old-timey marquee. But if Man Man’s theatricality is about luring ’em in, it’s also about misdirection– some sleight of hand to distract from just how dark and savage this music really is.

It’s never been darker or more savage than on Life Fantastic. Even the title is a smoke and mirrors. Its emphatic proclamation and archaic syntax suggest a tip of the fedora to an old-fashioned stage-and-screen kind of charisma, but beneath the title they’ve composed some of their most brutal and sinister lyrics yet; song titles like “Bangkok Necktie” and “Haute Tropique” sound like they could ever be the names of the goofiest B-movies ever or lyrics from a Tom Waits song circa the mid-1980’s, but there’s nothing particularly funny about the damaged introspection here, lyrics about broken hearts and drug addiction, stories of heartache and loss that often take a turn for the grotesque.

Speaking of Tom Waits, though, it should be mentioned that the darkness of singer/songwriter Honus Honus’ imagination seems only to fuel his band’s mayhem, and on Life Fantastic they sound once again like children run amok in Tom Waits’ junkyard– a junkyard in which nobody has had this much fun since Rain Dogs. And make no mistake– their shared fondness for Waits’ instrumental palette is as much a key to their allure as their flare for vaudeville; their music is about disparate textures, about eclectic percussive sounds, about antiquated song forms like the tango and the rumba, structures that provide Life Fantastic‘s songs with their skeleton even as they take some time to excavate from the surface-level mania and mayhem.

These old-fashioned formal devices are important, though, because they reveal what really gives Man Man’s music its resonance; this band isn’t merely devoted to a vintage conception of “novelty,” but also to a timeless attention to craft. That level of craftsmanship provides these songs with their thrust, their heart, and their power, and here it’s wielded with razor-sharp precision, thanks in part to the production assistance from Mike Mogis, the Bright Eyes/Monsters of Folk overseer whose work here helps trim the fat and reveal the contoured shape of Honus’ songs. And would you believe that, between the more focused songwriting and the controlled chaos of the production, Man Man has crafted what might be one of the year’s most aggressive and direct rock albums? That may be an odd thing to say about a group whose calling card has always been a theatrical artifice, but it’s nevertheless true, as Mogis helps album opener “Knuckle Down,” complete with its marimba-lead Wonka-vision breakdowns, become the most rocking, most physical track Man Man has ever recorded, while the sparser “Steak Knives” moves its tent from Tom Waits’ junkyard-circus era to the chamber-folk leanings of Real Gone‘s quieter numbers, and is both alluring and surprisingly moving in its spaciousness and intimacy.

But of course it would be wrong to suggest that a more focused Man Man is a less strange or singular one; if anything, their uniqueness is all the more potent in these more focused, concentrated bursts. This is probably as good a time as any to mention that the album contains a full-on surf-rock track called “Piranha Club”– because why not, I suppose? But not, this isn’t a kinder, gentler Man Man– just one in which their inner darkness and outward theatricality are stripped of excess and revealed to be inextricably tied. This one cuts to the bone– it’s a defiantly nimble balance of performance, art, and rock, and as such it’s the purest incarnation yet of Man Man’s twisted genius.

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