Release Date: Sep 10, 2013
Record label: Anti
Man Man frontman Honus Honus (Ryan Kattner) has always had his heart firmly planted on his sleeve. On his band’s fifth album, On Oni Pond, the experimental-rock showman sharpens his Frankenstein mash of genres down to a gleaming point and plunges it deep into his carotid artery. He now shares his self-destructive song-crafting duties with drummer Pow Pow (Christopher Powell), which lends tracks such as “Pink Wonton,” “Pyramids” and “Fangs” a supplementary punch.
There’s something weirdly delightful about the juxtaposition of Man Man frontman Honus Honus’s gravelly, metallic voice with the ukulele lightness of songs like “Deep Cover” from On Oni Pond, the band’s fifth studio album. “The heart is a motherfucker, I’m positive of that,” Honus sings. This is a man who’s not afraid to tell it like it is, or at least as he sees it, which in his mind is the same thing.
“Every time she tries to find / the kind of love that won’t leave her behind / she ends up feeling like some sort of / shadow on the wall,” Man Man bandleader Honus Honus intones on “Fangs,” a late-album track from the Philly band’s latest release, On Oni Pond. The album, while the least noisy and frenetic of the band’s output, is not short on the dark character studies Honus has been writing since 2004’s The Man in a Blue Turban with Face. That wild-eyed energy of Man Man’s earlier releases was a lot of fun, but it was also divisive, the kind of din that could prompt more conservative listeners to shut the band out completely.
Like every Man Man album, On Oni Pond finds the wolfish Philadelphia crew to be more traditionally tuneful and less grating than the last time out. The obvious play is to acknowledge it as part of the ongoing maturation of Man Man, yet it always feels strange talking about “maturity” for a band that never sounded young. That isn’t to say Man Man sounded old, as in tired and tame.
On earlier outings, Man Man's sound resembled a demented carnival, with oddball junkyard instrumentation and unexpected twists and turns in their compositions. For On Oni Pond, the Philadelphia group turns in their most simply orchestrated record to date and their most melodic overall. Over the course of their prior four albums they had subtly been moving in a poppier direction, with 2011's Life Fantastic showing signs of going mainstream.
Every problem a band faces during its finite existence can be whittled down into two principle struggles. The first is the battle against the outside world, or more specifically, the battle to gain that initial recognition for itself amid a plethora of other upstarts and the jaded indifference such an overabundance engenders. Once this battle has been won, once the globe has been disarmed by what we hope is a unique voice, a band will then enter its next struggle, and in many cases, this is the most significant of the two, since it lasts for the remainder of the act’s unpredictable lifetime.
Man Man's fifth album, On Oni Pond, boasts both a cleaner production style and more tightly constructed rhythms and melodies than the band's previous, more down-and-dirty efforts. While those albums felt like a series of unpredictable improvisations, each track on On Oni Pond seems too-carefully constructed and fine-tuned. Man Man's sound is still as identifiable as ever, all wailing horns and driving rhythms, like a New Orleans funeral procession, with all its contrasting feelings of joy and doom.
Philly’s Man Man has never really been accused of making a stripped down record, but On Oni Pond, their fifth, is quite possibly the closest they will ever come to being considered de-cluttered. And while you can already hear the cries of “I liked their earlier stuff better” there is still a lot to like about this new album. A tad more accessible (as accessible as a band with a sousaphone player can be), but still pretty unique, the songs are tighter and more melodic than even their last effort; Pop at the core, but with plenty of jazz, funk and experimental rock layered on top.