Under Review: Man Man – Life Fantastic

It’s not that Philadelphia’s Man Man is juvenile, but the group defies and even resists aging. True, they have made their arrangements tighter and their playing more skilful, but their joyous cacophony still arrives with a sense of irreverent abandon. If there is anything about Man Man that has shown signs of maturation, it’s leader Ryan “Honus Honus” Kattner’s song subjects and themes. With a title like Life Fantastic, you might expect Man Man’s fourth full-length to be loaded with giddy proclamations of seizing the day, but it’s a lyrically dark yet sonically ebullient album. Last time around, on 2008’s Rabbit Habits, Kattner mused about giving things up in the name of love, but Life Fantastic finds him a bit more jaded. In “Dark Arts,” a mid-song refrain of “Mister dagger, meet mister back/Inseparable, together at last” is repeated with an aching sense of familiarity. Kattner is bringing us to a place that he himself doesn’t seem comfortable exploring, making Life Fantastic a tense listen. The title track is none too uplifting, either, as Kattner encourages his subject to tell various downtrodden folks that the world is dying. A pastoral frolic through the psyche this isn’t. Unless you’re referring to the music.

What Man Man perfected early on was a sound. Sounding like it’s constantly on the verge of collapsing, Man Man’s music boasts a number of diverse influences. Latin marimbas, funky electric pianos and Balkan rhythms have been the most common inclusions throughout the group’s career, and Life Fantastic adds even more. Produced by Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis, the album is deep and rich sounding, and even less shambling than its slightly polished predecessor. The string arrangements on Life Fantastic were done by Nate Walcott, also of Bright Eyes, and they add an indescribable dimension to songs both intimate (“Steak Knives”) and theatrical (“Haute Tropique”). Other moments on Life Fantastic are nothing short of superb, such as the Spector-ish “Piranhas Club” and the perversely soulful “Spooky Jooky.” Man Man aren’t likely to ever settle down into normalcy, but that’s just as well. Their peculiarity is what defines them, even if that very trait remains a little tough to define.

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~ by E. on May 27, 2011.

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