To the uninitiated, Man Man is a bit of a tough sell. The Philadelphia group's odd, alliterative name is easy to mishear, like something you should understand but still don't quite. Their albums—just as bizarrely titled, with names like Man in a Blue Turban with a Face and Six Demon Bag—feature music wholly removed from any of the dominant sonic threads in contemporary American indie. It's a sound assembled of alien parts imported from far and wide—lusty sea shanties, primal chants, dark and passionate Mediterranean jigs, bits of doo-wop. There's a lot of yelping, swearing, and waltzing, and much more xylophone than electric guitar.
Indeed, Man Man is one of American indie's most distinctive acts, and their live show—coming to Kingston's BSP Lounge on Friday, May 24—is among its most intense and exhilarating. "We don't care if we look crazy, or if we look foolish, or if we sweat too much," insists lead man Ryan Kattner. "We're just trying to get down in the dirt, to connect." Assuming the nom de guerre Honus Honus, Kattner cuts a stage presence of Freddy Mercury-as-carnival barker, a flamboyant, mugging front man who sings like his guts are on fire and pounds at his keyboard with a child's animal glee. "I learned a lot about keyboards from playing with drummers," says Kattner. "I started out on a Rhodes, which is a very physical thing. I can really just dig in." Man Man's sound reflects this hunger for visceral connection, and while their music is too eclectic to safely pigeon-hole, the live material is largely culled from the caterwauling junkyard skronk—part Tom Waits circa Bone Machine, part Captain Beefheart circa Trout Mask Replica—that is their go-to mode.
Physicality is Man Man's calling card, in their sound, in their frenetic live shows, and in Kattner's lyrical preoccupations. Man Man is one of the few American indie groups who seem richly, un-ironically sexualized. "Sex is dirty, and it's ugly, and it's wonderful," says Kattner. "(Man Man) tries to express all that, no holds barred." "Knuckle Down," the opener on 2011's Life Fantastic, nakedly recounts a relationship vexed by sexual dependence: "What the hell can I do when you whisper 'punish me'?/ Snap me like a tiger trap, harvest all my honey." There's also a playfulness to Man Man's unfettered raunch, as on 2008's fittingly titled Rabbit Habits, where Kattner admonishes a promiscuous leech named Butter Beans for the "lipstick across [his] dipstick," only to later play the villain himself, tempting an unhappily married woman: "You wonder where the true love went / cause the breeder in your bed don't butter your bread / I'm top dog, hot dog."
The dark and dirty stuff aside, Man Man's true strength is in tempering pain and sadness with merriment and play. "(We try) to handle dark subject matter without it being all doom and gloom," says Kattner. "It's important to maintain levity...and to celebrate." Man Man's live show is a testament to this mood of redemptive, cathartic celebration. On stage the band members all smile incessantly, donning war paint and quasi-ritualistic headgear, bopping along to the collective rattle. Kattner's lyrics are brilliant, but for the in-person Man Man experience, truly meaning boils down to truly feeling: "You go see a show, and you're probably not going to understand anything that the singer's saying. But if they mean it, that translates regardless. If you believe in what you're doing, it should register some emotion."
The group recently finished work on its as-yet-unnamed fifth studio album, set to be released via ANTI- later this year, with an extensive tour to follow.
Man Man will appear at BSP Lounge in Kingston on May 24 at 8:30pm. Advance tickets, sold through the BSP website, are $8. Tickets at the door are $12.