Last year some pictures of everyone’s favorite gypsy art-rockers, Man Man, circulated around Internetland. The boys, hard at work on the their new album, were out in the street trying to record fireworks. I figured that it was all some stunt to come off as wacky, and that fireworks would never appear in a Man Man album. Well, color me totally wrong. Those fireworks show up on that new record, “Rabbit Habits,” for all thirteen glorious seconds of “Mysteries of the Universe Unraveled,” and that appearance pretty much explains why this is Man Man’s best record yet.
So how does a thirteen-second transition track consisting entirely of the sounds of fireworks make this album better than 2006’s truly excellent “Six Demon Bag?” Well, those thirteen seconds are indicative of an important trend. Previous Man Man records offered some great songs, but they rarely deviated from a standard model: horn-and-piano driven cabaret and klezmer-tinged pop songs emphasizing frontman Honus Honus’s deep-voiced laments about hopeless love. Those albums certainly never lived up to the sweaty euphoric chaos of Man Man’s live shows, which feature much stranger synth sounds, driving multi-part percussion, holy water, crazed gang vocals, piles of confetti and kazoos. “Rabbit Habits,” on the other hand, does.
This disc is full of odd little samples like those fireworks, or the sounds from some old-timey penny arcade that kick the whole set off, as well as electronic squeaks, pots-and-pans drumming and much more vocal input from the full band. The additional parts flesh out these songs, making them sound like the best party the local asylum inmates have ever thrown, rather than the bedroom recordings of one extremely sad lunatic. Man Man is still going to get compared to Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, which just means that the lead singer has a deep voice and the music sounds like nothing else on college radio.
I don’t mean to imply that “Rabbit Habits” is a bunch of formless weirdness. The songs are incredibly strong in and of themselves. That’s also not to say that this is conventional indie-pop with a lot of extraneous quirk thrown in. At the album’s best moments, elements you’ve never heard on a rock record come together to create a sound you never would have thought possible. “The Ballad of Butter Beans,” in which the only instruments seem to be drums, bass, xylophone and glockenspiel, or “Hurly/Burly,” where those aforementioned kazoos provide the main rhythmic drive in the verses, both serve as examples. Man Man has given me my first taste of rhythm kazoos, and now I want every band to use them.
“Rabbit Habits” is also Man Man’s first musically eclectic record. The New Orleans funeral march “Big Trouble” leads into the fractured doo-wop of the aptly titled “Doo Right,” which is followed by the drunken Dixieland sing-along, “Easy Eats or Dirty Doctor Galapagos.” The lurching, swaggering single “Top Drawer” is both utterly unclassifiable and the best song Man Man has ever recorded. The boys also prove they can pull off very pretty chamber pop on the title track. Of course, Man Man hasn’t totally abandoned its Eastern European influences. That old klezmer/cabaret sound is executed better than ever on the crime novel/suite “Poor Jackie.” Honus’s merry gang certainly enjoy a good tribal chant, and they indulge themselves on “Mister Jung Stuffed,” “Harpoon Fever (Queequeg’s Playhouse)” and the breakdowns of “Hurly/ Burly,” where they insist, “This ain’t no love song.”
That chant’s a clue to another important trend in “Rabbit Habits.” Back in the day, Man Man was lovelorn losers. Honus said he would “sleep for weeks like a dog at your feet,” if you’d take him back, but knew it wouldn’t work out. But now on “Mister Jung,” the leading track, he hollers that he’s “been locked down way to long” and concludes:“I don’t want to love anymore.” Now Honus is a bitter observer of other people’s problems. In “Rabbit Habits,” he sings of the protagonists: “she don’t wanna dine alone, and he don’t wanna die alone.” On “Poor Jackie,” he addresses the title character spitefully: “I don’t see what everybody sees in your sexy body. All I see is a shallow grave wrapped inside a pretty face.” This new Honus is even content to be a villain; on “Butter Beans” he plays Cruella De Vil, yelling threats—“you’ll make a lovely headdress or a double-breasted suit” —at the eponymous cartoon animal. Sure the lyrics are bleak and misanthropic, but that doesn’t stop the songs from being scarily fun. “Rabbit Habits” makes for one hell of a sanitarium party and is the best album of the year.