I can’t believe I have finally grown tired of detecting and celebrating the influence of Tom Waits in modern music. But, 28 years after Rain Dogs changed my life irreversibly and for the better, I have. I tell you I am done invoking his holy name in all my “dancing about architecture,” this weekly exercise in frustration and futility that is trying to describe music.
It took a while for the Waits influence to ascend. In the height of the alt/rock ‘90s, maybe you could say that you heard a touch of that Waits thing in the weirdness of Primus or the Pixies, or, more overtly, in the debut album of a sadly obscure New York alt/rock band called Skeleton Key. But now it is on. Waits is in rock ‘n’ roll’s water supply, like the Beatles, like Bowie, like Dylan, Prince and the Velvet Underground. He has inspired scores of bands who don’t even know that they are inspired by him, because they are getting it secondhand or third- – just as a generation of songwriters got its Beatles from Elliot Smith.
And it is not just Waits the writer and singer, his barking, myth-mad persona and its gobs of redemptive sentimentality. It is everything about those records, Rain Dogs (1985) all the way to Bad as Me (2011), every last gesture: the sexy, stinging dissonance of Mark Ribot’s guitar; the marimba-driven “bone machine” rhythm beds; the boozy slop and languor of Waits’ nylon-string guitar and piano-playing; the trashy, primitive drumming; the groove lexicon that is both retro/ethnic and utterly alien; the Alan Lomax field-recording production values. It’s all iconic now. It’s what “real” sounds like.
Looks like I am going to need more precise and granular reference points to use whenever I encounter noirish and mad early rock ‘n’ roll, haunted circus and cabaret, post-beatnik surreality, garbage-can torch songs and damaged bossas, waltzes and tangos. But when I find it all in one place – as I do in the kinetic, exciting music of the band Man Man – I know that I must intone the Waits name at least once more.
So Man Man sounds a bit like Tom Waits. At the very least, Man Man’s highly original sound probably couldn’t have existed without the radical break from status quo and from sanity that was Waits’s music in the ‘80s and after. I bet that they’re tired of hearing it; I know that I’m tired of saying it.
The Philadelphia-based Man Man’s fourth and most recent release, 2011’s Life Fantastic, is an ecstatic and virile specimen of dark party music, all carnival chromaticism, sublimated rumbas and cha-chas and an off-kilter, spooked approach to rocking that might be called “Munsterism.” Man Man’s core sound is a teeth-clacking groove engine of mallet percussion, piano, twang and herky-jerk drumming. Flourishes of louche Prohibition swing and occult theremin-ism dance on the fringes. At times, the sound (and the lyrics) tends toward the homicidal; more often, they’re just insane.
It’s a delightfully dense and detailed album, thoroughly orchestrated without ever losing a sense of wild, Dionysian abandon. And one thing that you know for sure – without question, no further evidence required – is that this is a kickass live band. You can hear it in the propulsive, ever-forward energy and the organic assurance of the feel and the timbral palette. Sure enough, Man Man’s shows are legend on the Bonnaroo circuit and in clubland generally: a cathartic, theatrical-but-not-entirely-comic live workout routine with really good songs to boot. And it actually doesn’t sound all that much like Tom Waits.
Better see for yourself. Man Man takes the stage at the BSP Lounge in Kingston on Friday, May 24, headlining a truly excellent bill that includes the shimmery guitar rock of Washington, DC’s Paperhaus and New Paltz’s gifted psychedelic folk/rock up-and-comers Breakfast in Fur. A limited number of tickets will be available at the door on a first-come, first-served basis for $12, with the doors opening at 8:30 p.m.