Man Man are Halloween’s ambassadors of rock music. Their 2004 debut, The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face, offered no guitars with rusty, unpolished horns, misshapen piano melodies and yelps and screams to accent it all. It was a desolated carnival ground of left-behind misfits banging on whatever instruments they could find in the trash. Then 2006’s Six Demon Bag brought their sound farther out of the junkyard, with more cacophonous yet clearer sounds. And their third release in 2008, Rabbit Habits, began to find them falling into traps of conventionality or conformity (see: “Doo Right”). With the exception of the spectacularly fun “The Ballad of Butter Beans,” rhythmically, what used to sound like a 25-person free-for-all now resembled a more or less straightforward rock band. And yet, they still clutched their identity desperately with abrupt sounds, screeching falsettos and grotesque lyrics.
A similar progression of sorts happened to fellow Philly band Dr. Dog, as well as the folk-stompers of The Dodos. And it’s also why Beirut is facing a Sisyphean task on his next record: such distinct sounds lose novelty with each successive release. It’s up to the artists to keep their sound transforming in refreshing ways. On Life Fantastic, Man Man clean their sound up still more, so at the end of the day, heretofore-inimitable rock of the minor key has finally tamed itself into an echo of parallel trends like post-rock and garage rock. Man Man may have passed the sophomore slump long ago, but the curse of the high school burnout is a greater risk for such a unique starting point sonically.
Life Fantastic‘s opener, “Knuckle Down,” carries the group’s classic marimba, but the effects to the voices and uniform-sounding horn give it a sheen that gives away their predicament: they’re trying to avoid redundancy while still trying to recapture what made them unique in the first place. Oddly, this leaves them coming off like an ambitiously catchy Franz Ferdinand.
“Piranhas Club” is a fun, ’50s-style self-empowerment anthem that leaves them sounding like an ambitiously hip version of Mayer Hawthorne. The sounds are not misshapen anymore; instead they are rather trite and carefully constructed for appeal. Meanwhile, frontman Honus Honus sounds like an actual singer with real-life pathos and emotions, rather than his usual bizarro hobo charm: “I don’t wanna be the stranger in your rear view mirror / I just wanna be the man you bring home again.”
It’s a mistake to come into this listen wanting the manic Man Man of old. You’re not going to get the familiar sounds that once turned heads and kept the listener rapt with cringing glee. What Man Man offers, instead, is catchy songwriting by definitively crossing the line into conventionality, where accessibility requires that they upgrade their tattered carnival costumes of old for a look of much more recent vintage.
Stream: Man Man – “Life Fantastic”