All words: Emily Crawford // All photos: Ryan Kelly
There’s something perennially refreshing about a band who flat-out refuses to fit neatly into a specific genre. Man Man, an eclectic group of multi-instrumentalists from Philadelphia, is just such a band. Not only do they defy genre, but any given record of theirs spans the distance between heartfelt ballad and raucous lunacy several times in just a handful of tracks. At a first listen, they can sound just plain strange. This is definitely not background music for coffee shops. But when one starts tuning in to the lyrics, the eclectic shrieks and clangs begin to reveal the depth of emotion and gorgeous songwriting underneath. Last Thursday, when Man Man returned from over a year of relative silence by kicking off a new tour at the Black Cat, their unique brand of experimental, apocalyptic retro-pop sounded every bit as refreshing as they did the first time I heard them.
The opening act, Murder by Death, seemed to pull almost as large a crowd as Man Man themselves; I saw more than a couple t-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with their name in the crowd. I’ll admit, having never heard of them, that the band’s name had me skeptically anticipating some amateur death metal, but I was pleasantly surprised. They delivered indie rock that was western-tinged at times and more like an Irish drinking song at others; and frontman Adam Turla’s voice reminded me a bit of Craig Finn’s, which is never a bad thing. Oh, and they had this girl who could absolutely shred on the cello.
Man Man opened on a solemn, dignified note with “Feathers,” a slower track off of their second album, Six Demon Bag. This was the exception, however, when it came to the tempo of the songs they chose – they kept things fast paced after the opener, making the show feel like a rampant, ever-accelerating careen towards the wee hours of the night. And it did go into the wee hours of the night – with the main act taking the stage around 11:30, Man Man kept things going late, particularly for a weeknight. Not that it seemed to deter most of the fans; although the show was never officially sold out to my knowledge, the Black Cat was packed by the time Murder by Death took the stage.
It seems that Man Man have switched up – and indeed toned down – their onstage presence since I last saw them perform live, circa 2010. Once famous for wearing all-white apparel and war paint when they performed, the band members instead wore casually uniform black, their faces were unadorned. I particularly missed frontman Ryan Kattner’s (a.k.a. “Honus Honus”) erratic costume changes of yore. All in all, it was a slightly muted affair when compared to the excess and pageantry of their earlier shows (granted, “muted” for them can still be deafeningly loud). I took the more minimalist approach to be less a show of apathy on the performers’ parts, however, and more one of maturity. They’ve been around for ten years after all, and like many of their fans, aren’t quite as crazy as they used to be – but what they’ve lost in spontaneity, they’ve gained in experience and poise.
It seems that Man Man’s newfound maturity has translated into their music as well, or at least in its future. As promised, they played three songs off of their upcoming album, which is due out sometime this summer. The songs were played mid-set without introduction, so it was difficult to parse them out in one’s mind from the rest of the performance, but I will say that I liked what I heard. They reminded me the most of Man Man’s most recent album, 2011’s Life Fantastic, in that they felt more coherent than the erratic cacophony of earlier records. But the new tracks were hardly more of the same, either. One song in particular reminded me of “Doom-Wop,” the term coined by Kattner’s side project, Mister Heavenly, with its 1950’s lilt and pop-y harmony. I won’t say more lest I spoil the album for anyone, but it seems that Man Man’s sound will mature nicely, evolving while still maintaining a basis in their origins, not to mention Kattner’s raspy baritone.
One of the highlights of the concert was hearing the band hearken back to their early days with a few long-overlooked songs off their first album, The Man in the Blue Turban With a Face. “10lb Moustache” was a favorite of mine, with its weird little falsetto punctuations setting off Kattner’s bellowing vocals (Hey, remember when that song was featured on Weeds?). Other high points in the show included “Top Drawer,” the highly danceable “Piranha’s Club,” and the delightfully odd “Engrish Bwudd,” the latter of which inspired it’s own mini mosh pit in front of the stage for the length of the song. Sultry numbers like “Haute Tropique” made you want to dance the Charleston with their strategic use of horns. It was generally a good mix of tracks, sampling from all four previous albums while still saving time to preview the upcoming one.
My one real complaint about the show, aside from the fact that I am an old lady and they played past my bedtime? Man Man never seems to be big on playing their slower songs live, and this show was no exception. I was absolutely dying to hear “Rabbit Habits,” “Whalebones,” or “Steak Knives,” but it just wasn’t happening. To be fair, this makes sense for their live performances, which are so lively that it feels like if they slowed down even for a minute, they might lose momentum. But these slower numbers have always been my favorites on the records, due to their emotionally-wrenching lyrics and stripped down melodies, and I do wish Kattner and company would have indulged in a few.
- Murder By Death: