Regrettably, pristine production is one of a (very) few highlights to glean from Life Fantastic.
Bands that thrive on their mythical status, go exclusively by pseudonyms, and are known for shows “that you just, totally have to go see, bro” don’t usually hold up to the hype. If they do, their albums don’t often lend themselves to repeated listens. Unfortunately for Philadelphia’s Man Man, this theory holds true for their fourth studio album Life Fantastic. Man Man’s reputation and shtick precede them and it’s fitting that they enlisted the help of another musician and well-known name in the industry, Mike Mogis (Saddle Creek darling and member of Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk), to assist in production. Regrettably, pristine production is one of a (very) few highlights to glean from Life Fantastic.
The album starts out promisingly enough with “Knuckle Down.” A fun, driving melody sounds as though pushed through an 8-bit processor, and the song gets equally more exciting with a breakdown featuring the funky and punchy lines of a marimba. Honus Honus fits in crowd vocals during the fitting stanza: “So I asked the devil / how to learn to handle / women with a shovel / digging downward spirals,” and goes on to stretch his vocals yearningly to close out the brash and contradictorily upbeat yet downtrodden opening tune. “Piranhas Club” is a cloyingly sweet, saccharine mess that sticks to the to roof of your mouth like the remnants of a sugar cube—full of 1960s wannabe go-go drum beats, surfer-boy guitar twinkling, gangly group vocals, and stuttered, dopey lyrics such as, “The world is a shitshow / you barely can handle.”
Perhaps the most captivating song on the album, “Dark Arts” is still rife with contradictions. The catchy, up-tempo beats are paired with bizarrely grim lyrics sung in Honus’ gravelly baritone, the most disturbing line being “Mister dagger, meet mister back, inseparable, together at last.” “Dark Arts” might contain lyrics wrought with dismay, but its composition is easily the most upbeat and catchy on the album. The haunting, ominous theme carries through to “Haute Tropique,” a song that invokes visions of old New Orleans jazz funerals and crude drawings of Dia de los Muertos skulls. This is largely thanks to the tumbling march of drums, slinky male vocals, and the best elements of the song, the horn section and outstanding marimba work.
Life Fantastic is an album full of contradictions, right down to the most obvious of all—the album title. The album explores the darkest sides of life while attempting to be lighthearted and emotional. Many songs seem to run together due to the album sticking to the same mid-tempo with every song, save for a few. The marimba player is solid and Mogis’ charming production tricks are so obviously the biggest features that it’s distracting, but no more so than the goofiness of the album as a whole. C-
Originally posted at Playback:STL on June 22, 2011.