Forgive my sentimental heart and DVD collection, but Man Man’s live shows make me think less Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, and more third deck of the Titanic. Numb from hard-to-get-into (but easy to get into) shows, squeezing into the amniotic moisture of a Man Man basement show is like finally getting to “the real party.” Live, Man Man never stop for banter, letting their great wordless interaction speak for them. Soundwise, too, there are some similarities to steerage. Man Man dirges continental, mixing waltzes, pirate singalongs, pub chants, and carnival melodies into chest-thumping anthems, the kind of pidgin music produced by working classes in tight quarters. But live it’s easy to ignore the subtleties of the songs, which makes Six Demon Bag a different, but equally great experience.
The comparisons most people use — Tom Waits (Swordfishtrombones), Beefheart (okay), Zappa (not really) — are pretty useless. These bands have less in common with how Man Man sounds, and more to do with our limited vocabulary. Disparate, hard-to-define sounds are easiest to tag as funny or weird. Take from those comparisons that Man Man’s men are weirdos with growl-voices, and nothing else. There are Beef-y, wordless freak outs on Six Demon Bag, but there’s no justice-doing in namedropping those bands, no way to explain Man Man’s quick transitions to klezmer band, gypsy band, carnival barkers, Motown girl group, and mad men within a single song.
My best explanation for the schizophrenia is that each of Man Man’s demons are assured multi-instrumentalists, and they’ve just learned to stretch their chops as far as they could, because they can.
Take the first three songs of the album, which Man Man usually play live in the same order: “Feathers” is a bare bones (and bare-d bones) piano-and-voice opener in waltz time. It contrasts strongly with the falsetto’d beginning of “Engwish Bwudd,” with its ridiculous, pirate-like “Fi Fi Fo Fum / I smell the blood of an English man” chorus. Most members switch their throats from growl to falsetto on “Engwish Bwudd,” playing the parts of males and females in Man Man’s multi-voiced (and narrated) compositions. The band then dime-turns into gypies on “Banana Ghost,” adding spacey, echoing keyboard noises to the background just for kicks.
In fact, one can hear xylophone, soup pots, bass and accordion, and Moog keyboards all on one song, (and live, you’ll know it’s all one member providing it). Man Man had the good sense to leave the guitars at home, a constraint that left them unconstrained in combining genres, instruments and sounds.
Six Demon Bag‘s lyrics provide the only consistency (though ‘consistency’ is a pretty neutral term for this album). Where there are decipherable words, there’s a running theme of regret and lost opportunity. Lead singer/songwriter Honus Honus exudes a Bukowski-esque masculinity and bone raw sadness. On opening track “Feathers” he sings, “I know you need to find what you thought you left behind in a past life / I won’t question why / The only light that you have you gave away”. Midway through the album, “Skin Tension” expands on this. “Will we ever find the one that we were meant to love like we want to loved,” says Honus, before asking if ‘the one’ could have died years before we were even born (an idea too frightening for most of us). His voice lowers to a whisper on these lines, weary, defeated, resigned. This is the best of many contrasts this band offers: they’re unpredictable, but fatalistic; tough men who, despite their exterior, are resigned to “sleep for weeks like a dog at her feet”. For them, reincarnation’s a lie. Better to spend this life as a dog than to expect happiness in the next one. Not to get too sad clown, but under the ‘staches and snarls, Man Man knows that existence is nothing save preparation for death (and poor preparation at that). It’s acknowledgment that each flailing movement, each grasp at something to keep us afloat only tires us out faster. For all its surface wackiness and sonic inconsistency, Six Demon Bag‘s really a slow note on a sinking ship, and there nothing funny about that.