by Jay Mattson
There has been a disturbing trend with a number of bands I like. In the past few years, many of them have softened their sound, slowed it down, or “gone acoustic.” The Mars Volta’s 2009 album, Octahedron, was their least eclectic to date and, arguably, their least interesting. Last year, The Black Keys’ Brothers was obviously more reigned in than any record they’ve made. And most recently, TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light is an album that is well-executed and produced, but one that feels less satisfying than previous releases. This trend seems to be continuing with Man Man’s fourth LP, Life Fantastic, at least to some extent. Fortunately, Man Man knows how to play things softer, and this time, darker. Much, much darker.
“Knuckle Down”, a track that rivals those on Six Demon Bag, is an excellent album opener that reminds the listener of why they fell in love with Man Man in the first place: jangly, exotic instrumentation and band leader Honus Honus’ signature vocal style. The disturbingly dark lyrics play well off the more lighthearted beat. It’s a song that makes any listener feel a bit uncomfortable, but that’s part of the appeal. You can’t look away.
In true-to-form Man Man flair, “Piranha’s Club” is the band’s take on ‘50s style do-wop and boogie music, some of the earliest roots of rock and roll. Keeping to the theme, the lyrics state that “the world is a shit show, as bad as the sequel”. The all-or-nothing attitude is most strongly evident in the chorus: “Throw him to piranha’s / If you won’t be with me. / Feed me to koalas / if you won’t be with me.” At least, that’s what I think they’re saying. It’s a technique the band used most successfully on the title track from their 2008 album, Rabbit Habits. The title track used the exact same syntactical structure and diction twice in a row, yet they each express a vastly different feeling by only switching a few key words.
At this point, things sober down a bit, and the buzz from the first two energetic tracks starts to die down. But just like on albums past, Man Man shows no difficulty switching from fourth to first gear even within a single song. “Steak Knives” offers an appreciated break in the high-energy recordings which Man Man are known for. Of course, “Dark Arts” takes us right back to the intense, which isn’t a bad thing.
While every Man Man album is excellent, there are always 3-5 songs that stand out, and the tracks on Life Fantastic that exemplify this tend to be the ones with more passion behind them, and, therefore, more energy. On the other end, “Haute Tropique” is a mostly unmemorable piano ballad (or, as much a ballad as Man Man can create) that slithers back and forth with a slight injection of funk while staying relatively low-key.
“Shameless” might be the best song on Life Fantastic. Its piano opener is a fusion of Eastern-sounding chord progressions combined with classical Western symphony-style composition. It’s a daring and rewarding mix that makes for an absolutely stunning track. Not since “Ice Dogs” has a song so wholly represented Man Man’s unique sound, a sound that could be defined as its own genre, a genre that only Honus and his wacky friends can tap into. And while “Shameless” doesn’t feature funny voices, kazoos, or other tiny screwball idiosyncrasies, it feels more complete and straightforward than much of the band’s previous material.
Like “Hurly Burly” before it, “Spookie Jookie” is a silly song with a silly name. But unlike “Hurly Burly”, which was a horn-filled, almost cheerleader-like chant with a ridiculous bass line, “Spookie Jookie” finds its chops by complementing piano with Western-style guitar. “Jookie” is nearly as catchy and infectious as “Burly” was back in 2008, but this time, it feels more purposeful. Keeping to tendencies from the past also influenced “Bangkok Necktie”, an obviously Asian-themed track that calls on cultural musical styles and completely absorbs the source material, making it sound fresher than it has in decades.
The album’s title track is akin to “Feathers” on Six Demon Bag, mostly for the way it hobbles along, without much conceit for its placement or importance in the grander scheme of the album as a whole. For “Feathers”, it was the album opener and had the responsibility of setting a tone and grabbing attention. Similarly, “Life Fantastic” is meant to be a Man Man song that can be handled by the masses. To some extent, the entire album is produced this way. Mike Mogis, vetted Saddle Creek producer, worked with Man Man on Life Fantastic, streamlining their sound without losing too much of what set them apart. In fact, the band sounds as unique as they ever have.
On the final track, “Oh, La Brea”, the band starts out on a high note, but eventually moves into a homely melody that permeates throughout the last three minutes of the track. Unfortunately, this might be one of the only downsides to the album, as it loses momentum right when it feels like it should be gaining speed.
Most of Life Fantastic is excellent. And like every other Man Man album to date, there are some tracks that simply don’t stand out or fit cohesively. Any fan of this band will enjoy Life Fantastic though. It’s well-recorded, well-structured and, most of all, fun to listen to. In this era, where being a lover of music can sometimes mean more work (keeping up with music news, downloading mp3 samples, reading reviews, etc.) than actual listening to music, Man Man makes albums that are simply fun to hear.
Top Tracks: “Shameless”, “Knuckle Down”, “Dark Arts”, “Piranha’s Club”