This past Tuesday Man Man released their fourth proper studio album, Life Fantastic. I’d pre-ordered the disc and when I woke up Tuesday the good people at King’s Road Merch had emailed me a download code for the digital version of the album. Thus I put on a couple pots of coffee and set to absorbing some new madness from the trash-can digital circus that is Man Man.
After discovering Man Man in 2006 with their second studio album (and the first to be widely released) Six-Demon Bag, I flirted with full-out fan or skeptical inquirer. As much as I LOVED Six-Demon Bag I had fears – fears that the obvious Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits influence on the band would keep them from panning out into something they have since totally proved me wrong (thankfully) and become – a brilliant, original and constantly evolving cabal of musicians fully capable of pushing their own envelope and taking their listeners on interesting and unique experiences with their music. Where as with other Waits-influenced musicians that love of the boneyard orchestra sound becomes the defining influence of their sound and career with Man Man that toy-instrument, DIY aesthetic is more of a grassroots mission statement than a vogue. Watch the video below and you’ll see what I mean:
See what I mean? The trash can instrumental quality of the band’s albums isn’t just their sound, it’s their aesthetic and operating system. And with the follow-up to Six-Demon Bag, 2008’s Rabbit Habits, the group evolved by incorporating a new technological element into the style. The album starts out a lot like Six-Demon left off, with perhaps a bit more emphasis placed on Melody than Cacophony, but then quickly mutates. Tracks like Harpoon Fever (Queequeg’s Playhouse) and El Azteca move the album and the group into a more tribal-electronica vein, not unlike the classic Mr. Bungle track ‘Desert Search for Techno Allah’. And now, I’m happy to report, the night before I get to see the group live at LA’s magnificent El Rey Theatre, that Man Man’s latest, Life Fantastic, continues the group’s evolution.
Opening track ‘Knuckle Down’ continues the band’s use of slightly more electronic elements, sounding a bit like a remix commissioned to Aeroplane or Bag Raiders without actually being a remix. Track ‘Bangkok Necktie’ establishes one of the themes that runs through Life Fantastic – that of a slightly retro-recording sound compared to previous albums. What do I mean by retro here? There’s a weird, 80’s television commercial sound quality to the recordings. I know that’s vague as all hell, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but there seems to be a jingle element to the choruses of the track ‘Piranhas Club’ – as if it is the theme song to a Mr. Belvedere spin-off that never happened. In the title track too there is a certain melodic jocularity that hints at a parody of the kind of these-are-the-days endearment often associated with jingles and theme songs of the ‘simpler’ times gone by. And ‘Haute Tropique’, my favorite track on the album thus far, bites some of the lyrics from the Brady Bunch theme song to place on top of its tales of murder and dismemberment, Don Ellis-esque jazz horns and Waits’-like Marimba march.
The recording quality itself is a bit more zip-locked than the previous albums – Man Man has always been good for working in heavily mic’d rooms, usually in the process of recording backing vocals and percussion, working that airy ‘room’ quality into the backgrounds of the songs. There’s still a little bit of that here, but its live mic usage is cleaned up a bit more than usual. This doesn’t sound bad by any means, in fact it will probably be hardly noticeable to most until headphones come into the equation, but it does give Life Fantastic a little bit more a ‘controlled’ feeling than the often barely-restrained back alley chaos of the previous albums. And this helps Life Fantastic ‘read’ like a natural extension of the sonic possibilities and themes explored on those previous albums, so that what we are left with thus far in Man Man’s career is a new chapter in a so far four-album story. Best part – Something tells me the story’s not even close to finished yet.
Yay Man Man!!!