There are plenty of reasons to love Man Man, but the most compelling is its utter absurdity. Honus Honus (a.k.a. Ryan Kattner), the gravel-voiced frontman and the band’s only original member, sports an admirable moustache/half-dyed pseudo-mullet combo and does an old-fashioned boot beat-stomp while clad all in white during the band’s excellent live show. During “Push the Eagle’s Stomach,” from the Philadelphia hobo-junk-blues collective’s sophomore album, Six Demon Bag, someone (a high-pitched demon, perhaps?) screeches what sounds like “my brown eye’s blacker than yours,” simultaneously invoking scatological humor and playing off Kelis’s hit of yestersummer. Yes, Man Man thrives on the bizarre and has an almost circus-like originality. And therein lies much of the band’s charm.
On the other hand, that’s the same thing that will make many people hate this music. This is a band that doesn’t do anything that’s safe, and if they lose some listeners, so be it.
For the follow-up to 2004’s underrated The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face, Honus welcomed four new Man Men into the fold, including Pow Pow (nee Christopher Powell) of Need New Body (currently on hiatus) fame. Despite this change of personnel, this record doesn’t deviate drastically from its predecessor, though the ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it-ness of Six Demon Bag certainly doesn’t detract from its various and wonderful oddities.
There’s “Young Einstein on the Beach,” which is already the frontrunner for the most punk song of 2006, aside from perhaps the Avett Brothers‘ “Talk on Indolence.” On closer “Ice Dogs,” the band puts its multi-instrumentation to use, banging on anything within arm’s reach, starting and stopping the song on whims that are explicable in their brains alone. Weirdness for weirdness’s sake this is not, though; this is a band willing to follow inclinations regardless of where they lead, so long as they aid the glorious peculiarities of the song at hand; a band that would cover Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” for a special, download-only Valentine’s Day gift to its fans one minute, only to contemplate youth television programming the next (we’ll get to that).
Of course, if you’ve read anything about Man Man, the Tom Waits/Captain Beefheart comparisons inevitably occur. Not that they’re totally without merit. “Tunneling Through the Guy” lifts staccato guitar parts straight from Trout Mask Replica, but the important thing is that the track discards the familiarity quickly and moves on to more innovative organ sounds and other general nastiness. Cliché though it may sound, there is more to Man Man than the hackneyed influences everyone feels required to cite.
And yet the group doesn’t derive its greatness solely from wild instrumentation, screeching vox and other horrible noise. These songs are often damn catchy as well. “Van Helsing Boombox” sports old-time saloon piano sound as Honus sings, “Anything that’s anything becomes nothing that’s everything and nothing is the only thing you ever seem to have,” reminiscent of some of Isaac Brock’s best contradictory lyrical gems. Likewise, “Black Mission Goggles” rollicks along with the energy of a speed fiend, and I find myself singing along as Honus shouts of bodegas, cocaine and Brooklyn.
People love when the frightening and the artistic butt heads – how else would you explain the perverse attraction of a car wreck? During a recent interview, Honus told me about how his band was working on the concept for a children’s TV show. “There’s a possibility it will be awesome,” he said. “There’s also a chance it will be scary.” Exactly. Man Man’s music will irritate you, make you laugh, put you off and then bring you back for more. It is in this conflict that the band exists and succeeds so well.
Video of “10 lb. Moustache” (from 2004’s The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face)