Circus-like Man Man bandleader, Honus Honus (born Ryan Kattner), is the perfect pied piper, a worldly troubadour adrift in strange towns on a never-ending vagabond journey, perhaps suffering privately to assemble pensive lyrical twists and scatological musical turns executed like some ravaged Blues-croaked Captain Beefheart disciple.
Though he didn’t learn piano ‘til he was in his twenties and despite Man Man’s early merry-go-round lineup changes since formative ’04 debut, The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face, Honus’ crew is now tight as hell and more secure than ever.
Brilliantly bizzaro and thoroughly enjoyable, Man Man’s ‘06 salvo, Six Demon Bag, featured a startling blend of satirical heartbreakers, wayward waltzing, thrashing metal, melancholic abstractions, and psycho honky tonk. The clustered cling-clang percussive counterpoint outfitting facetious pirate-yowled chant “Spider Cider” recalls subterranean ‘90s bohos Skeleton Key, who, like Man Man, were a hip assemblage of pragmatic art schooled existentialists extending conventional pop boundaries beyond mere enthusiastic recreation.
Likewise, each abundantly diffuse tune they touch is given a properly designated contextual scheme to work within on this estimable package. Most inventively, cracked baroque closer, “Ice Dogs,” conjoined by a rallied doo wop motif, goes from electrified flute-flanged metal to trumpeted second line New Orleans Jazz. Moreover, intrinsic Baltic oom-pah rhythms gird the euphonious melodica consuming “Banana Ghost.” And if that’s not resourceful enough, the catchiest cut, “Black Mission Goggles,” dupes hoary Carnival cabaret to kitsch-y effect.
But as much nonconforming fun as Six Demon Bag proved to be, the taut collective improved twofold for maniacal abstraction, Rabbit Habits (Anti Records), a magnanimous follow-up finding Honus perched somewhere between cultish beatnik bard, Tom Waits, and some dingily nebulous swamp-rooted vagabond. At times, Honus Honus’ troupe seems to nip at the heels of gypsy punk, as on “Easy Eats or Dirty Doctor Galapagos” and fascinatingly playful snub, “Top Drawer.”
They even dip into vamped Vaudevillian theatricality on obtuse Beefheart-styled free-fall “Mister Jung Stuffed” and bodacious swing band obscuration, “Big Trouble.” Downcast villagers lament, “Poor Jackie,” gathers ‘tragic violin,’ pondering piano, and melodic clarinet to become Man Man’s most accessible derivative. Syncopated bass lubes outré synthesized segue, “Elazteca,” which glides directly into the black-hearted piano-strolled title track.
Honus claims fellow Philly-based artist, innovative Jazz legend Sun Ra, inspired the doo wop-informed “Harpoon Fever,” a schoolyard jump-roped nursery rhyme with sweetly innocent girl group chants and ‘60s surf guitar rumble.
Undoubtedly, Rabbit Habits is a wildly ambitious cluster bomb combining an amazing breadth of ideas in one daringly delirious derangement. In total, its cavalier revelations peruse oblique freeform contrapositions in a downright definitive manner, giving Man Man a decisive edge as one of my favorite albums of 2008.