Of vaudeville and vikings
Man Man’s music is an old-world trip
You’re drunk, as gone as a sailor who just discovered a port at the edge of the Earth and a big hole rotting through the bottom of his ship. You float clumsily in the direction of a soft, sad waltz that streams from a bar on a night that’s fading into sepia tones. On a night when the air tastes like cold, gritty salt water, and makes the old bar seem inviting.
Inside, a pianist lurks behind the dusty, straight back of his instrument. He sings like Tom Waits. Yeah, it has to be Waits. But there are three of him. You’re sipping from a black bottle with no label and hearing triple now.
“I know you need to find what you thought you left behind in a past life,” the voices sing. “I won’t question why the only life that you had you gave away.”
It’s the gloomy intro to Six Demon Bag, a recentish offering from Philly-based Man Man—five guys who live in the present but pound drums, electric keyboards, horns, strings, pots, pans, “science” and a marimba like a bunch of sailors and circus freaks of yesteryear.
The Waits-y voices gravel on, lulling you into the darkness of that black bottle, when this creature—a toddler with two heads—shimmies up to the piano and starts babbling in song. The music quickens. A drumbeat kicks in; a horn slinks, rattles, sometimes screams, above the music. “Fee fi fo fum,” croon those gravelly voices. “I smell the blood of an Englishman,” chirp the two heads.
The bar comes to life. Jugs of beer are slammed together in sloppy gestures of camaraderie. Women in corsets and fishnet stockings appear with fans twirling and can-can leg kicks. They link arms with sailors and mimes and carnies to swirl around the room. “Get the fuck out of my house!” calls an old man in white onesie pajamas threatening to burst buttons over his gut, but no one seems to hear.
And that’s just track two. Sure, it’s weird. But Honus Honus (Ryan Kattner), Pow Pow (Christopher Powell), Alejandro “Cougar” Borg (Russell Higbee), Sergei Sogay (Chris Shar) and Chang Wang (Billy Dufala)—the men of Man Man—won’t deliver it any other way. Honus says their sound is “Viking doo-wop avant-abstract pop magic wand face” or, more simply, “like cerulean blue.”
Confused? That’s appropriate. That, or you may be intrigued by the band’s carnival grunge.
On track three, drumbeats, cymbal jingles and horn flutterings pick up the pace. Someone links an arm through yours and you skip in circles together, big stupid grin on your face, uncontrollable laughter, black bottle flapping along as an extension of your free arm. Merry, raucous abandon. You don’t ever want to leave.
Then a drum thumps twice on track four and the whole blissed-out party becomes a demonic nightmare. Screaming. Manic screaming. The twin heads are going insane.
Believe it or not, Six Demon Bag is more polished than Man Man’s 2004 effort, The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face. Honus likes to tell people the new album is a collection of pop songs, and let them look at him like he’s crazy. Unlike most young, male indie musicians who drop band names like a beat-boxer drops boomsties, Honus will proudly tell you that he doesn’t really listen to music—except the occasional old country song, from which, evidently, he draws little inspiration.
The rest of Six Demon Bag will take you through profane violin waltzes; toward jungle beats uplifted by a demonic organ; into the sea chantey call-and-response of pirates and stowaway kids; past heavy-metal snake charmers; around the baritone moans of cave monsters; into the belly of a retro heart-throb who smokes too many cigarettes; and through discordant filler noise to the finale: a “Greased Lightning”-on-shrooms xylophone jingle with lilting Tom Waits voices and doo-wopping twin heads. Not exactly country. Pop, perhaps, if you’re crazy. But definitely cerulean blue.