We don’t only want Man Man to bring the drama—we expect them to. On 2004’s The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face and 2006’s Six Demon Bag, wickedly charismatic lead singer Honus Honus ranted and railed like his sweater was on fire, and the band bashed and clanged and soared like a gypsy-folk band on Roger Clemens’s steroids. Rabbit Habits, the Philadelphia group’s first for Anti-, turns down the amps, reduces the Jolt intake, and generally bids for newfound maturity and restraint. The surprise is that it mostly works.
Which is not to say that this is dinner-party music—not by a long shot. Instead, electronic blips and squiggles (some sounding like Devo, others like primitivist chanting) take the place of Honus’s well-honed roar at the forefront of the mix. “Big Trouble” piles a cool-jazz xylophone atop skronking, out-of-tune horns, while “Rabbit Habits” coasts on a barrelhouse piano loop that’s downright sleepy by Man Man standards. The near-ballads work quite well, exhibiting an instrumental fluency familiar from earlier albums, but three-quarter-speed rockers like “The Ballad of Butter Beans” and “Harpoon Fever” fall between the cracks, with hooks too dull to resonate.
Still, no track here succeeds more thoroughly than the lovelorn epic “Poor Jackie,” which opens with a teary violin solo, then turns into a moody cabaret number, then molts into a violent stop-start rocker, then transmutes once more into a woman’s torch song. “I want to downward spiral to you,” the hopeless lover dreams. “So please come with your sharpened knives and murder me.” Even such fantasies of romantic annihilation are not to be: “There ain’t no God here, as far as I can see,” the torch singer replies, and the song fades out in a series of random squawks. Album closer “Whalebones” picks up where that track leaves off, its moody blues tipped into melancholy by Eliza Hardy and Lindsay Nader’s chorus: “Who are we/To love at all?” Hearts silently break to saxophone accompaniment, and gypsy-folk grows bigger by slowing down, and growing up.
Man Man play the Bowery Ballroom April 10, and the Brooklyn Masonic Temple April 11