Whenever conversing over ale with my friends, I find that the topic of music that appeals to specific genders frequently arises. It’s easier to pinpoint the stereotype with women—Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan—these artists have a large female audience, but even at a majority, they’re not exclusively playing for women. Still, it’s harder to find an artist that only men listen to. AC/DC and Led Zeppelin are tempting to name, though there are obviously many women who enjoy both bands. The artists that are most commonly mentioned by my comrades, however, are Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, and, most of all, Captain Beefheart (you may even recall the geeky patron in High Fidelity who is denied a copy of Safe as Milk). I’ve known women who listened to all three, but they are a rare breed, and thus the theory does hold a little weight. Interestingly enough, Philadelphia’s Man Man combines the musical sensibilities of all three artists, creating a sound that is inherently masculine, thus proving the viability of their name.
Merely calling Man Man masculine, however, isn’t quite pinpointing what they’re all about. They don’t sound like Queens of The Stone Age, for instance, a band that is 95% testosterone if there ever was one. Man Man are not so much manly as they are boyish with an ogre-like exterior. On Six Demon Bag, their sophomore effort, they revel in the roguish exploits of pirates and thieves, yet they intertwine these picaresque adventures with guttural sounds, blasts of noise, the gravel-voiced howl of frontman Honus Honus and a tendency to bang on any object that will produce a loud crash.
In interviews, the band has even been asked if they’d ever invite a woman to join in the fun, to which they replied, “of course.” This isn’t, mind you, music that will only appeal to women, as its Y-chromosomal tendencies aren’t overbearing, they’re just easily identifiable. In fact, it’s easy to imagine fans of The Decemberists taking to Man Man, though the two aren’t necessarily all that close, musically. Rather, while each band has their own mixture of odd instrumentation and whimsical lyrics, the boyishness of the Decemberists comes out in Colin Meloy’s own cherubic voice, while Honus Honus sounds like a drunken madman. As he barks “She’s a warm bodega/High on Noriega” on the ramshackle Danny Elfman-meets-“Come Together” pastiche “Black Mission Goggles,” one can only picture a grizzled, whiskey soaked pirate, which, in some ways, is exactly what he is.
Masculine, boyish, gritty or whimsical, most of what makes up Man Man’s oeuvre is fun and imagination. They wouldn’t be shouting or banging on stuff if it wasn’t fun, would they? On “Engwish Bwudd” they look to Jack and The Beanstalk for inspiration, shouting a chorus of “Fee-fi-fo-fum/I smell the blood of an Englishman.” On “Hot Bat,” the band joins together to bellow “yaaaaaa-ya-da-da,” and hollers wild falsetto warbles on the jazzy highlight “Spider Cider,” which, even in name, sounds fun. Man Man does occasionally slow it down, as on the gypsy waltz “Skin Tension.” And, arguably the best track on the album, “Van Helsing Boombox” marries a relatively straightforward vocal by Honus with a bouncy, yet tender melody, finding a good middle ground between accessibility and the band’s unique weirdness.
There’s no question about the maleness of Man Man. Instead of speaking to the macho and chauvinistic, however, they find a meeting place between the beast bellowing in the woods and the boy in a tree fort wearing a newspaper ship hat. It’s the best form of therapy, if you think about it, being both primal scream and a channel to one’s inner child, and it’s fun to sing along.
Tom Waits – Frank’s Wild Years
Captain Beefheart – Safe as Milk
Firewater – Get Off the Cross (We Need the Wood For the Fire)
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.