Philadelphia's Man Man have found the perfect berth for their gypsy-swamp-rock-carny-soul-Viking-vaudeville-punk collective. This record matches the fierce energy of their non-stop live shows, which utilize a variety of more traditional instruments (accordion, Moog, xylophone) along with such noisemakers as soup pots, shoes, squeaky toys, and a fire extinguisher. With a following that sells out clubs coast to coast and with a kinetic stage presence, Man Man are a musical contagion waiting to happen.
Review by Jason Lymangrover
Anybody who's seen Man Man perform knows that their CDs don't do justice to their live shows. They're a visual band: woolly bearded, usually wearing tennis shorts and warpaint, and thrashing around the stage like wildmen to tricky time changes. Rabbit Habits finds the band relying less on shock value and absurdity, and more intent on making a congruent album. Having already tested their boundaries, this is a mature showing, finding the band more relaxed (but still plenty tense), more structured (but still experimental), and more restrained (but still pretty crazy). Like on their prior two albums The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face and Six Demon Bag, the music is exuberant and eclectic, but the tracks are less convoluted by excessive instrumentation. Sure there are a lot of instruments -- distorted electric organs, junkyard percussion, horns and wind instruments, indefinable noises, and a surprising use of xylophone -- but it's spacious, and scattered throughout. Variety is the spice. There are times to shake a tail feather (the frenetic Looney Toons vibe of "The Ballad of Butterbean" and the head-jerking bungee cord bounce of "Top Drawer") and times to reminisce (the haunting and heartbreaking sea shanty "Whalebones"). It's like they've learned what they're capable of achieving, and now they're less interested in decadence and more excited by songcraft and pushing the limits within the traditional sense. That said, in Man Man's world, nothing is traditional. Everything is blanketed in a carnival smorgasbord: call it a fusion of klezmer, gypsy punk, and experimental rock that's difficult to compare but most comparable to Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. Like Trout Mask Replica, this is a thinking man's album, the type that reveals new facets with every listen. It dips and changes pace quite a few times over as singer Honus Honus adapts accordingly, flipping from Hot Hot Heat sandpapery irreverence to Jim Morrison's bellowing grumbles. It's strange and strangely beautiful, dividing equally between a cartoonish frenzy, sluggish flapper numbers, and mellow waltzes. It's still not exactly accessible, but it's their easiest listen to date, and a damn amazing and amusing one, if you're feeling creative.
Lead singer Honus Honus kicks off Man Man's third album with the line "Been locked down way too long," and he ain't kidding. Despite the temptation to revere/revile the Philly band as a homogenous curio, people forget Man Man's comprised of real people with real emotions. Forget the porn 'staches and Zappa/Beefheart/Waits funhouse gags, 2006's Six Demon Bag was, at the end of the day, an incredibly poignant confessional. In between three-ring antics, Honus lost his heart (and shit) over and over again, most memorably on the standout ballad "Van Helsing Boombox", pining to "sleep for weeks like a dog at her feet." Fast forward to Rabbit Habits and you'll find Honus still howling like a dog, but of a different breed. Dubbed by the band as their "pop record," Habits knows that sex sells, and suddenly Man Man's starting to sound less archaic. Habits's steady rock swagger and listener-friendly songwriting stands to convert haters while also retaining the band's beloved quirks: You won't need to rent Fiddler on the Roof or own a hurdy gurdy to appreciate this record, just a libido and willingness to rock out.
There's a tendency for a band's maturation to deep-six most their unqiue tics, but Man Man pull a Houdini by releasing an album that simultaneously showcases them at their most cogent and carefree. Unlike past albums, there's not so much garage sale rummaging as search and destroy songwriting. The band's dedicated to nailing certain ideas within the allotted track time and often does so. As a result, we get "Mister Jung Stuffed" and "Top Drawer", two of Man Man's most single-ready works and the finest entry points for Habits. The latter's particularly jarring, not only because of its confrontational lyrics and brothel boogie, but also for its stark contrast to the romantically waylaid Honus of Six Demon Bag: "People claim I'm possessed by the devil/ But Mama, I know I'm possessed by your daughter!"
Throughout the record, Honus focuses less on himself than a rogue's gallery of offbeat characters. "Hurly/Burly" tells the tale of a pair of fuckups at odds with society, replete with two refrains of existential screams and the hushed mid-song disclaimer "This ain't no love song." That street urchin angst spills over into "The Ballad of Butter Beans", where Honus makes death threats to the title character over a Looney Tunes xylophone. In a testament to their refined craftmanship, the debauchery comes full circle by the eight-minute "Poor Jackie", an emotionally dampened gypsy stomp that turns a cold shoulder to its star-crossed subject: "I don't see what everybody/ Sees in your sexy body/ All I see is a shallow grave/ Trapped inside a pretty face." By the song's conclusion, the band practically dances on her grave, calling out a boisterous horn section before launching into a capella mock gospel and declaring, "There ain't no God here."
Habits has little to apologize for, no serious blemishes or ill-advised shifts in direction. So why does it fall a hair short of Six Demon Bag, despite being a more cohesive effort? Partly because organization doesn't quite suit Man Man, but moreso because Habits sounds tailored for the stage. Even intimate ballads like "Doo Right" and the title track seem more like bellyaching than Honus coming apart at the seams. Still, what we've lost in a bedroom companion we've gained in one of the year's best rock albums (devoid of nearly any guitar parts, mind you). After making a case for melancholy hobo rock, Man Man's not begging for quarters or kisses anymore. Like a vagabond stumbling upon a sack of gold, they're now ready to hit the town and live a little.
-Adam Moerder, April 08, 2008