Six Demon Bag
here’s a fiesta foaming in the drunk tank again. The inmates have doped the lawmen and hollowed out their few toilet rolls for percussion. They’ve pulled their teeth and thrown them at the bars, plink, plunk, and pink plop. They’re squealing in chorus, leaping at these steel rods and filling the cell with the thud of their skulls, mayhem. This is extravagance in the night, within the cage; a group of sensualists done gone rabid, in a commune that supports them body and mind via chain and steel. But they don’t want to leave.
In short, this is Man Man. Not the same Man Man of Man in a Blue Turban with a Face though. A few of that record’s main players, including tribalistic troubadour (er, percussionist) Tiberius, left just before the album’s more serious recording began (the departed players have gone on to form Whales and Cops). Instead, band leader and circus somnambulist Honus Honus brought in Pow Pow (Christopher Powell, formerly of Need New Body) on percussion as well as multi-instrumentalists Les Mizzle and Sergie Sogay. Loyalists have already bemoaned the new rhythm section’s inadequacy, but Six Demon Bag is a softer sort of madness, allowing the Victorian piano lines and Honus’ humid vocal lines their place amongst the bang.
In fact, all things told, Six Demon Bag is a subtle improvement on the band’s debut. Man in a. . .’s heave at all corners, its willingness to take on every variety of whimsy and musical contortion, is replaced here by a band with a more succinct vision. Sure, there’s the Waits/Beefheart/Zappa triumvirate to cornerstore these boys, but now Man Man seems more capable of succession, above and beyond the mirror. With new member Mizzle helping with the recording process, they shaved some of the beard from Honus’ tongue, leaving just a smatter of hair on his barked-out vocals. His punk-sunk poesie is free to tangle with his band’s fiery tropicalism, and the result is the band’s clearest, most important work.
Aptly then, given my coarse metaphors, “Van Helsing Boombox” was the first song to get tongues wagging. Starting with a stardust piano and the band’s backing whistling and harmonizing, Honus begins his broken-window lost-poem, husking his chords to a love gone and forlorn, perhaps for the best, but at least removed and thus worthy of his thoughts. Perhaps for the first time, he’s written a love song we can follow, shorn of the manic arrangements and calloused vocal lines of previous work. He “wants to sleep for weeks / Like a dog at her feet,” though he understands the uselessness of his appeal. It’s here that you understand Honus’ bold unveiling; you can see those gritty eyes, those speakable lips, underneath all the beard and persona.
Elsewhere, Man Man squiggles through Dixieland skank with “Engwish Bwudd,” turning the ole “Fee Fie Fo Fum” into a piano-strut of gag and gallop. “Banana Ghost,” however, flirts with Russian yablochko—a sailor’s dance. With its acoustic guitar and flamboyant free-folk instrumentation, Honus sings to the his band’s response, “Please don’t go put a fence around your heart / Like you’ve done before / When you’re losing ground.”
Unfortunately, the album allows itself to drift at times into Man in a Blue’s chattering. “Young Einstein on a Beach”’s yowled vocal refrains and stinging abuse is a cruel cacophony following “Banana Ghost,” while “Push the Eagle’s Stomach” turns the band’s elegant foolery into a messy jam, a discordant yelp against Six Demon Bag’s gain in cohesion.
But then Man Man pushes you back into the Walpurgis chill of “Black Goggles,” all child-born “ya-ya-ya-ya” and tambourine heel-spring. “Hot Bat” might well be the summons of Cajun spirits to the stage. You can hear Honus above and beyond the band’s choral “Ya-Ya-Ya-Da” refrain, the coursing call-out of Pow Pow’s tribal concussion. It’s the way they work now; their more straight-forward arrangements are more god-defying than their attempts at confusion. They understand the charm of a simple rainstorm; they no longer need the robust mael of the strom. Man Man’s at their best when they howl in a voice you know instead of relying on your imagination of how an alien windpipe may work, how all of that unknown unknown might play on the human ear. This is miscreant soul, a gamble on the quiet of our nights, a noise and a sting, in the garbage and in the woods, gulping up silence and sense to show us love behind a mustache.