[17 May 2011]
The city of Philadelphia is a strange, disturbing place. None other than David Lynch once described it as the “sickest, most corrupt, decaying, fear-ridden place imaginable”. Anyone who has seen even four minutes of Eraserhead should know David Lynch isn’t easy to disturb. The Philadelphia collective known as Man Man can’t really be accused of corruption, but as far as lyrical content goes, sickness, decay and fear are prevalent. What’s more, Man Man is just plain odd. The touches of Frank Zappa and Tom Waits found in their music aren’t light, and they are never without an air of creepy unpredictability. No place other than Philadelphia could have produced Man Man.
Man Man, however, can be produced by others and anyone with knowledge of the band should be surprised to learn that Mike Mogis—of Saddle Creek fame—served as producer. Although some of Mogis’ sensibilities can be extricated on repeat listens, Man Man signatures are still largely in tact. Life Fantastic has what sounds like a rib cage standing in for a xylophone and Ryan Kattner’s gruff vocals (although not Tom Waits gruff, the effort is a valiant one) and frankly demented lyrics. Much, perhaps even too much, is usually said about Man Man’s live shows, cracked and percussive affairs featuring the band all in white. So legendary are Man Man gigs, that it’s often said recorded output cannot compare. However, on record and without visual disturbances, the lyrics have the ability to burrow through into your nightmares. In describing the way he feels with his lover in the title track, Kattner likens himself to a corpse the listener would find at a picnic. On “Haute Tropique”, the subject matter is a crafty serial killer and the victims include a Haitian from Florida who becomes “a rug in his foyer”. It’s got a smooth lounge beat to it and a sitar cameo.
In other instances, the lyrics are simply dark and depressing. “Shameless”, which is actually a very effective song about desire that fully earns its dramatic crescendo, also contains such pleas as “Tear out all my flesh / And all my bones / Make me your cold machine / So I can walk alone.” Before one starts thinking, “so that’s where the Mike Mogis influence lies,” it should be noted that while Life Fantastic contains its fair share of downbeat tunes, there is never an air of self-pity about it. After enough listens, the more frightful songs even seem like campfire stories, albeit the ones that keep you from sleeping.
Yet, could the casual Man Man listener get as much out of this batch of lyrics and some studio cohesion as experiencing the band live? Although hearing the percussive intro to “Dark Arts” alone will instantly make one wish that Man Man were in their bedroom, keeping time on the listener’s lampshades and nightstand, there is no denying the catchiness of something like “Piranhas Club”. Perhaps the cheeriest case for having a nervous breakdown in recent memory, its beach blanket bingo vibe will keep you listening until driving your car into a lake seems like the only logical way to de-stress. Such digressions into insanity may not be the choice way for everyone to unwind, but again, it’s a Philly thing. Life Fantastic should make some locals proud.