Album: Life Fantastic
Imagine that Indie and/or hippie friend of yours–the one with the scraggly beard and tattered clothes. Now imagine putting said person in a tuxedo. Seems like an odd fit, doesn’t it? It’s that sort of juxtaposition we find with Man Man in with their new album ‘Life Fantastic.’ It’s still that same quirky wild-child band people have grown to love, but they’re dressed in the finest production values and songwriting of their career.
This is a bit of double-edged sword, however. On one hand, thanks to producer extraordinaire Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk, many others), Man Man’s songs have never sounded so intricate and lush. Brass horns squawk, flutes trill and violins weave an air of sadness in all the right spots. It’s a lot to take in on first listen, especially compared to previous albums. “Piranhas Club” sounds like an wonderfully wacky 1950s beach blanket bingo jam, “Shameless” and “Spooky Jookie” sound like the effort of a 10 person strong collective. It’s a far cry from the shambolic cacophony of old, but the full-bodied sound really works for the songs and makes it evident that a lot of thought and care went into their creation.
It is trade off though. Gone are the frantic yelps and galloping pace of songs like “Engrish Bwudd” or “Banana Ghost,” as well as the strange call and response creepy child-like choir choruses. Lo-Fi production and ramshackle instrumentation complimented their Tom Waits on PCP style of songwriting. The sort of manic energy that made their live shows legendary is seriously toned down here. To be fair, this feeling might in part have to do with the heavy amount of reverb on the vocals which makes them sound more emotionally distant than ever before. Opener “Knuckle Down” and the jaunty “Dark Arts” come close to their previous level of energy and are fun romps destined to be well received on tour, but this is all early in the album. Aside from a few mid-tempo moments in “Shameless” and “Bangkok Necktie,” this is a much slower, contemplative affair.
In a recent interview with Vans, lead singer Honus Honus explained the overall somber tone of the record as, “contextually, this is an album fueled by the end of relationships, the death of good friends, an absence of structure, drifting from place to place without a real home.” The feeling is palpable in “Steak Knives” and somewhat ironically titled “Life Fantastic” in particular. Contrary to what one might think initially, this mood shift suits the band very well. After all, some of their finest moments have been somber, especially on their last album ‘Rabbit Habits.’ The two closing tracks on that release, “Poor Jackie” and “Whale Bones,” saw the band weaving the best narratives and instrumentation of their career despite the lethargically weary execution.
The beautiful thing about this decisively somber direction is it gives the record cohesion not achieved in ‘Rabbit Habits.’ That was a record that seemed like it couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be a rambunctious Man Man album of old or evolve into the more elegant and concise songwriting of mature musicians, which makes it in retrospect a transitional album. This latest effort is evidence of a band that has matured and honed its craft.
The amount of mileage one gets from this album depends on your reasons for being a fan of this band. If you listen to Man Man for the raw energy of music that sounds like it could be a soundtrack to a Where The Wild Things Are dance party, then it might be better to just download a few of the tracks mentioned that retain that classic momentum. But if one really appreciates this band for their unique brand of talent and are willing to travel with them into darker, subtler terrain, then welcome aboard. Greet that scrappy tuxedo-wearing friend with open arms. His efforts are appreciated and fill you with anticipation of seeing what other surprises he has in store next.
By Jarad MatulaMan Man – Knuckle Down by antirecords