It’s too hard to assign a genre to Philly five-piece Man Man. And generally, it’s a waste of time.
An honest, “Ummm, it’s like, Viking-vaudeville circus melodic punk?” conjures up images and sounds of an American Gogol Bordello, which is so inaccurate, while a more simmered down, “Ahh, experimental indie, maybe?” draws comparisons closer to Animal Collective, which is even worse.
So who knows how to label Man Man? One of the best parts about Man Man was that you had no real way to describe what you were hearing. Each song is so multi-layered, so filled with atypical twists and turns, that almost every sound or lyric was surprising. Their music is just … unexpected.
But their fifth and latest release, “On Oni Pond,” is significantly more calculated and predictable. It falls short of the Man Man magic you crave and leaves you full, but not necessarily satisfied.
Songs from older Man Man releases, like 2004’s “White Rice, Brown Heart,” were almost an enigma. With lyrics like, “I wanna be your Israeli Goggles / Native Indian shadow shadow / I wanna be inside of your mouth / Duck duck duck duck duck duck man hoof hand,” there was really no help offered in the way of trying to discern meaning from a majority of their romps.
For four albums, Man Man succeeded in making you confused. But with “On Oni Pond,” we can figure it out.
This album makes an effort to make their songs far more accessible and relevant in terms of sound and lyrical content. It’s not hard to figure out what almost all of the songs on the album are about, especially tracks like, “Pink Wonton” and “Head On.” Frontman Honus Honus jam-packs the album with references to current pop culture phenomena like “Call Me Maybe,” CNN personality Wolf Blitzer, Kony and TV crime drama “The Wire,” which makes me wonder if the band isn’t trying to make up for lost time.
Keeping with the theme of accessibility, most of the tracks on the album are incredibly subdued for Man Man. With previous albums, it was almost impossible to compare the rambunctious music to anything else, but I found myself drawing comparisons to other bands throughout “On Oni Pond.” “Deep Cover” sounds like a Beirut song, which disappointed me to no end. The ukulele and horn combo sounds less charming and more like Honus Honus is giving up and acquiescing to a crowd whose music peaked in 2008. It’s cute but nothing short of boring.
Despite my complaints, however, there is one crucial positive: Although less fun, “On Oni Pond” is still undeniably, remarkably, Man Man.
Man Man has a way of empathetically analyzing the human condition. It doesn’t do heavy songs often, but when it does (I’m looking at you, “Sparks,” and “Head On”) it really kicks your heart in the ass. Honus has this uncanny insight into life, and the advice he gives you throughout the album is genuine. You can tell he’s speaking from experience. But the songs are never sad; rather, it gives you the tools to prevent yourself from being sad, or at least how to recuperate when you’re having an off day.
To be fair, the music is still pretty great. It’s more subtle and has a different style, but that doesn’t make the music any less good.
“Loot My Body” and album closer “Born Tight” are the rowdy, big-band gems of “Oni,” asserting themselves as the ultimate ear worms. No, seriously. I listened to both these songs four times in a row, just because listening to them once simply wasn’t enough.
As a long-time Man Man listener, I found myself having to remind myself that Man Man’s true claim to fame is musical diversity, and that’s exactly what “On Oni Pond is.” It’s ridiculously diverse, and while it may not appeal to my personal taste as much as Man Man’s previous work, it’s doing what it does best. I can’t be mad at it for that.
Ultimately, you get what you put into “On Oni Pond.” The songs are weirdly beautiful but never necessarily just weird or just beautiful, and they leave the listener grasping for something intangible to bring it together.
Man Man plays at Crescent Ballroom on Saturday, Sept. 28. For the under-21 crowd willing to drive two hours for what will presumably be one of the most fun shows of the year, it’ll be at Club Congress in Tucson the night before. Tickets are $15 and available at manmanbandband.com.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org