The bill: Modest Mouse with Man Man at Chicago’s Congress Theater. The time: several years back, when Man Man was known to most in the crowd as “the guys opening for Modest Mouse.”
Outfitting both themselves and their instruments with loud colors and kitschy knick-knacks, the openers appeared hell-bent on attention getting. But did their potentially gimmicky stage presence support a compelling sound? Indeed it did. So much so, in fact, that they upstaged the headliner, as Mouse frontman Isaac Brock was unable to channel his drunken exuberance into the focus-driven intensity Man Man brought with its seemingly unlimited reserves of energy.
A few years later, Man Man has a deservedly larger fan base, but the game hasn’t changed much in terms of the freewheeling jester-rock style. Fortunately, this serves the band well on its latest LP, Life Fantastic, which finds the rambunctious crew molding their zany song craft into something darker, with a bit more heft.
Never ones for subtlety, Man Man kick off Life Fantastic with the pummeling stomp of “Knuckle Down.” Soon lead vocalist Honus Honus crashes the scene with his throaty yowl.
His voice bears the carnival barker’s theatricality perfected by a showman like Tom Waits (“Haute Tropique” would fit next to anything on Rain Dogs), and it’s always added a raw yet consciously playful edge to Man Man’s music. Here, it’s well suited for the sinister lyrics, as Honus Honus rips into a line like, “I’m racing through the dark/a headless Saint Bernard/to cauterize the scars/that line your dirty heart.”
The band follows “Knuckle Down” with “Piranhas Club,” a deceptively cheery song that sustains the lyrical griminess of the first track (“You feel like you can’t deal/ Your heart’s doing cartwheels/The world is a shitshow/as bad as the sequel”). By paring these songs, Man Man achieves early on a sonic polarity that carries throughout Life Fantastic: this is the kind of music you might cry to if you weren’t so busy laughing.
And yet Man Man finally becomes disarmingly tender in the album’s last moments on closer “Oh, La Brea.” The song’s latter half is one of the most gorgeous passages they have ever produced. As it ends, the gentle melody points towards an exciting future for the band. Who knows what we’ll hear next from Man Man’s cartoon-colored world?
Man Man – Life Fantastic Tracklisting:
- “Knuckle Down”
- “Piranhas Club”
- “Steak Knives”
- “Dark Arts”
- “Haute Tropique”
- “Spooky Jookie”
- “Eel Bros”
- “Bangkok Necktie”
- “Life Fantastic”
- “Oh, La Brea”