Published on September 8th, 2013 | by Dave Scaddan0
Man Man – On Oni Pond
Honus Honus is a singer/songwriter with the whole package. His music as the piano-playing frontman of the Philadelphia outfit Man Man has a style that really doesn’t sound quite like anyone else’s, and he can reach an audience with many different types of songs. Alongside Honus’ versatile piano skills and his rich, gravelly voice, Man Man also boasts a distinct flair for live performance and a menagerie of instruments no other band uses. This band’s progression since their 2004 album ‘The Man In The Blue Turban With The Face’ has been a steady path from crazy to credible. Since they followed up the 2006 record ‘Six Demon Bag’ with 2008’s ‘Rabbit Habits,’ fans have been able to hear Honus starting to write more songs that don’t rely so much on Man Man’s insane, squealing, hollering energy, leaning more on the sparse presence of its creative core. Man Man’s last album, ‘Life Fantastic’ featured an understandably conflicted band, not quite sounding anymore like a zany cadre of mustachioed gypsies, and not quite giving themselves over entirely to the creative gifts Honus Honus has to offer as a more muted, simple songsmith. It was still a great album, but hearing ‘On Oni Pond’ makes ‘Life Fantastic’ seem something like an album in-between.
The new record was written without the full collaboration of Man Man’s five-member makeup. ‘On Oni Pond’ features music written only by the vocals/keys and percussion duo of Honus Honus and Pow Pow. The result is a far less frantic and frenzied sound, allowing some very alluring songs to glow on their own merit. It’s not exactly like Honus has gone all Billy Joel or something, the music still offers a very skewed version of mainstream folk/pop delivered with a truly characteristic voice, but gone are the Mike Patton-styled grunts and squawks that punctuated so many of Man Man’s early records, and the trumpet and sax of Cougar and Chang Wang are being used to smooth things out now, not sounding so much like some kind of crazed carnival horn revival.
Listeners will still find weirdness hiding in the dark corners of this record, where tunes like ‘King Shiv’ see Honus and company playing with keyboard and sequencing tricks that would fit quite nicely into one of Tom Fec’s projects (Tobacco, BMSR). And though the lyrical content of the last few albums has gradually become more heartfelt and personal, there are still some pretty strange lines to be found in ‘On Oni Pond.’ There’s no lyric here pondering the fate of one trapped in the guts of a Japanese executive, but it’s not exactly your standard pop-lyric fare either.
It’s hard, as a fan of this band, not to miss the completely unhinged insanity that such an instrumentally talented five-piece can conjure. But it’s also tough to argue against the instincts of such a talented craftsman trying to push his more soulful side into the spotlight. A sweet, sombre guitar ballad like ‘Deep Cover’ would’ve felt very out of place on an earlier Man Man album, but it’s a great song that deserves to be heard despite all expectations.
If this more focused style can sound at times like something’s missing, this is really more of a testament to Man Man’s fantastic lunatic past than a knock on their new direction. No question, Honus has the chops to pull his own wagon, but at this point, it’s just a question of who’s greasing the wheels.