Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Man Man/Six Demon Bag/8.3

You'd think after all the Zappa/Waits/Beefheart darts thrown his way after the band's 2004 debut, lead singer Honus Honus would cut the gravel shtick-- the stache, too. Instead, he seems to have bought all three's entire discographies over again, zeroing in on Waits' freak empathy, Zappa's klezmatics and turnarounds, the Captain's sense of surprise.

I don't have much issue with Sylvester's review except for the opening paragraph - Tom Waits, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart are influences cited in the one sheet. Sylvester isn't the only critic to cite Waits, Zappa and Beefheart as influences but I only hear two of them on the record. The weird tin pan alley instrumentation is similar to Waits' records on Island. However, where Waits writes songs about other people's stories, Honus Honus's songs seem far more personal and direct. The tracks also hearken back to Beefheart, but mostly from Safe As Milk. There are few songs that approach the bizarre cacophony of Trout Mask Replica. As far as "klezmatic Zappa", Zappa had many influences on his music, but I don't remember klezmer being one of them. If anything, Zappa was deeply rooted in R&B and blues - the Mothers frequently included doo wop covers on their early records.

To me, Man Man carries on more in the tradition of later Pere Ubu records, Snakefinger and some of the old Rock In Opposition groups such as Henry Cow. There is the use of band instruments as well as rhythms that come from European music more than they do from African American music. Also like those bands, Man Man's playing is airtight. In particular, drummer Pow Pow (Chris Powell) manages to accent Honus's plodding keyboards with a flurry of rattles, thumps and crashes that allow each track to swing. Also, Honus Honus's voice is both slightly jarring yet compelling in a way similar to Pere Ubu's David Thomas. Man Man isn't noise - it's highly controlled, very tonal and very orchestrated. It's also just particularly dissonant.

Nick Sylvester is right in guessing that many folks won't like Man Man. This isn't music you'll hear in a coffee shop or restaurant. You might hear it in a bar, but only if the bartender is trying to drive out a specific clientele. Typically, music critics and many record geeks have ears that are thirsty for Man Man's flavor of difficult listening. Personally, I have a good section of vinyl devoted to such records - Aqsak Maboul, Fred Frith solo albums, Henry Kaiser - that I have seldom inflicted on friends. If I had to turn someone on to Man Man, I'd start with Van Helsing Boombox, then go to Black Mission Goggle. I'd also make sure that my listener was already comfortable with the kind of discord produced by Pere Ubu or Deerhoof or at least older Animal Collective. Frankly, if it's someone I trust, I'd let them take the CD home and listen to it a few times. This is a CD that ages better with repeated listens.

Sylvester nails the record in his assessment of Honus Honus's lyrics. The songs manage to combine comedy with personal pain. On Spider Cider, he goes from the repeating the nonsensical refrain of the title to the line "you should always run with loaded gun in your mouth". Other lines scan initially like nonsense, then reveal themselves as the songs progress. Overall, the 8.3 rating is fair, though I'd warn potential listeners that loving this record takes time.

Lastly, I haven't seen any reviews that mention the origin of the title of the record - Six Demon Bag. The title comes from a magical bag carried by a character in John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. If anything, the dialog from the movie sums up a lot of what's in the bag and on the record-

Jack Burton: Hey, what more can a guy ask for?
Egg Shen: Oh, a six-demon bag!
Jack Burton: Terrific, a six-demon bag. Sensational. What's in it, Egg?
Egg Shen: Wind, fire, all that kind of thing!

Througout the rest of the movie, Egg pulls out a variety of tricks from the bag. Like Shen's bag, Man Man's latest is an unpredictable bag of tricks, providing a suprise whenever you pull something out of it.