My fascination with Man Man goes pretty well back to the beginning, to an anonymous copy of The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face that landed on my review pile at some point in late 2005. It was different from anything I’d ever heard before — mad as barking dogs, alternatingly harsh and beautiful. It had a children’s choir, a doo-wop chorus, a ’40s jazz saxophone, a fascination with gorilla masks, and a fixation on thwarted love. At the time, I enthused:
Man Man is a Philadelphia/New York-based trio exploring the outer edges of Afro-beat-tinged cabaret, xylophone-clinking dream narratives, and violin-darkened robot grooves….Their reference points are many — the mad theatricality of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, the Eastern European decadence of Dresden Dolls and Barbez, the expansively-defined percussionism of Skeleton Key and Mahjongg, the twisted lyricism of Tom Waits — yet ultimately insufficient. Man Man is what it is, intricate and overstuffed, rigorously rhythmic as it drives right over the edge.
Since then, I’ve been to see Man Man a few times, in successively larger venues with ever-larger, ever-younger crowds. I’ve digested an excellent second album, populated by an almost entirely different band (frontman Honus Honus is the main link). I’ve interviewed Honus twice and his drummer Pow Pow once, and still have no idea how to treat their bizarre nicknames in print. Along the way, I’ve gotten comfortable with one of the oddest aesthetics in indie rock.
In fact, maybe I’ve gotten a little too comfortable. Man Man is, if anything, still evolving, and, these days, if you go to a show to hear “Zebra” and “Spider Cider” and “English Bwudd”, you’d better be prepared for the new stuff as well — more pounding and drum-crazed than anything on the two existing records.
This show falls perhaps midway between Six Demon Bag and whatever Man Man will release next. A good third of the material, as far as I can tell, hasn’t yet appeared on CD. The band’s continuous, kinetic set has been honed over a year or two of touring, and they have 40 more dates to go after this evening, in a string that will last through early December.
The new material, even more than Six Demon Bag, shows the influence of new-ish member Pow Pow, who, under his real name, Christopher Powell, was the drummer for Need New Body before joining the Man men. Syncopated shouts, deafening cadences, all six members pounding at once on drums, keyboards, guitars, and pots and pans — that’s what defines the newer material. The melancholy saxophone runs and half-vulnerable growls are a thing of the past. Man Man has always been the most rollicking version of heartbreak. Now, finally, they are simply rollicking. You can’t be sad forever, especially when the college girls are painting mustaches on their pretty faces just for you.
It’s a young crowd that Man Man draws, but not quite as young as their opening band, Who Shot Hollywood, whose members range in age from 11 to 13. (You could spot their dads carting drum cases in the side door before the show started.) In addition to their obvious gimmick, Who Shot Hollywood are a pretty good band, as prone to sweet power-pop melodies as abrasive post-punk breakdowns. The drummer, who looks to be the youngest member of the group, kicks out clattering, rupturing fills; his brother, on bass and vocals, is loose, lanky, red-haired and not the slightest bit nervous as he thuds out the eighth notes under his skittery, oblique lyrics.
Who Shot Hollywood has had a fantastic run lately, picking up opening slots for Ted Leo, Mission of Burma, and now Man Man. Frontman Lucas Kendall is only a little sheepish about touting the band’s upcoming date at the Eric Carle museum, an unusual show where the audience may even be (gasp!) slightly younger than the band.
There’s a long break as Man Man sets up a large array of percussion instruments — keyboards, props, and red Christmas lights — then exits to change into white martial-arts costumes. When it starts, the set is one long frenzy, bits and pieces of songs emerging from one another, the players in constant motion as they switch between instruments. Every once in a while a battering drum break makes you feel as if you’ve ended up in the mid-section of a mid-sized college marching band.
For a new song, the band trades percussive, swooping oohs and ohs, then returns to older material, barking and xylophone-pounding their way into the introduction for “Zebra”. The rattling percussion, the falsetto sighs melt into an unexpected flute solo, which somehow winds its way into a gypsy caravan. The smashing chords of “Against the Peruvian Monster” lead, with a peculiar kind of sense, into the lyrical saxophone of “I, Manface”. Then something clicks, and we’ve entered the maniacal rhythmic stomp of “Black Mission Goggles”. One member of the band pounds off beats on a silver canister; at another point, everybody breaks out the slide whistles. It is gloriously unpredictable and unhinged, and yet the train never quite runs off the rails.
You notice every once in a while that everyone is banging in unison on whatever drums, keyboards, guitars, or basses happen to be handy, but on the newer material (that is, the material I don’t know from the two albums), people are more likely than not banging on drums. There seems to be an uptick in volume and rhythmicness on the new tunes, a downplaying of subtlety and melody.
Honus strips down to a glittery shirt and headband for one of these songs, doing an almost hip-hop, spoken style of singing in front of a band that has transformed into a gaggle of drummers. Everybody’s heads bang up and down to the beat, a headlong, undeniable 4/4. “10 lb Mustache”, from the first album, seems almost unimaginably subtle and melancholy afterwards, its growled-out “People say you’re wild/ You’ve been christened a feral child/ You need pornography/ To help you sleep at night” somehow vulnerable and heartfelt.
The audience favorite, though, is clearly “English Bwudd” with its “Fee-fi-fo-fum” chant and jittery music-hall chorus. The crowd shouts along to the “Get the fuck out of my house!” interjection, obliterating whatever Honus and his men are doing. Funny that the 10 seconds that probably kept this cut off the radio turn out to be everyone’s favorite part. There’s a rabid performance of “Einstein on the Beach” with its double-time chorus of “gotta get it” and an equally mad, equally audience-pleasing run-through of “Push the Eagle’s Stomach” with its “Mustache! Mustache!” rant.
For the encore, there’s the jittery, old-timey “Ice Dogs”, organized around and extended, piano-led, doo-woppy chorus. Everyone is clapping along, and Honus has climbed onto the top of something to lead the song. He falls off, just for a minute, but the beat continues, and when he gets back up, it’s as if nothing at all has happened. The beat goes on; the beat is all. If you like the sound of that, something tells me you’ll probably like the next Man Man album, too.