Man Man are known in equals parts for their three-ring circus look and sound. So what happens when they mature a bit and start depending less on rollicking full steam ahead in their all-white ensembles? Well, if you close your eyes and ignore the face paint, you get an album like Rabbit Habits. No fear, though, fans of the eccentric, it sill has that swampy Waits vibe (see “Big Trouble,” its “you fuck like a mule” naughtiness, etc.). And it’s not that they’ve run away from what brought them into folks’ bloglines — the kitchen-sink instrumentation, the goofy Zappa-isms and chants, etc. It’s just that the zaniness feels more in service of their writing now, or their writing is pushing for something more than just landing in the left-field. What do we make of the growth? Well, Rabbit Habits makes us even bigger man man fans, which we didn’t realize was possible. But then, when you get down to it, the band’s newfound maturity isn’t that surprising. In fact, we saw it coming.
Honus Honus started showing signs of playing it straight with his take on “Little Boxes.” At first, it was hard to believe that it was him singing. It was great. More accurately, actually, Honus introduced us to this vulnerable side with Six Demon Bag’s “Skin Tension” and especially “Van Helsing Boombox” and its “I wanna sleep for weeks like a dog at her feet even though I know it won’t work out in the long run.” Such romance. There’s a little more of that side on this album in the brief voice cracking piano ballad “Big Trouble” (“I can’t breath underwater like I used to before I met you…”) and the excellent title track: “He don’t even taste the food he eats anymore / And he don’t wanna dine alone / And she don’t wanna die alone / And he wants to eat to live.” Those elegant little pelicans. Something that helps it maybe even trump Six Demon Bag is its sequencing: Gentle “Rabbit Habits” follows hyper synthesized, spy-and-spacey “El Azteca.” After the “Mysteries Of The Universe Unraveled,” basically an 11-second field recording of fireworks popping, we get that aforementioned “Doo Right” … which is followed by the Gogol/Waits ragtime spazzing of “Easy Eats Or Dirty Doctor Galapagos.”
Part of our love for Rabbit Habits could be that we feel like we already knew much of the record: We posted “Big Trouble” back when we thought it was called “Zombie.” They’ve been playing that and fellow-standouts “Mister Jung Stuffed,” “Hurly/Burly,” and “Harpoon Fever” a lot live at most of the shows we’ve posted about. Particularly, dim sum night and at Webster Hall with Celebration and Pissed Jeans. The one-note kazoo/kitchen-sink juggernaut “Hurly/Burly” kills, with its pot clangs, Pow Pow percussion, and Honus animus — the “this ain’t no love song”s backed up by a nasty clapping polyrhythmic breakdown; it’s a skill set snapshot that belongs on repeat.
Another noteworthy take comes via the advance track “Top Drawer” — “People claim I’m possessed by the devil / but father I know I’m possessed by your daughter,” is pretty bad ass, no? — but what’s maybe the most impressive thing about Rabbit Habits is the band’s decision to close out the 13-track run with two 7-plus minute epics: “Poor Jackie, which is ostensibly about a female Jack The Ripper (“She tattoos a mustache above her lip / curses God for those hips,” after hearing Jack is still on the loose) and the cool-jazz-y, mysterious, horn and banjo-lined love story closer “Whalebones”: “She holds him like an infant / Though it breaks her in half to know her weight like a man.” Its female harmonies and Honus’s soulful delivery offer a mellow, restive end to the sermon. It’s one of a number of tracks about love or at least things that pop up between men and women, most likely fucking like rabbits. So, yeah, their (and our) habits. There a few tracks where the troupe zigs when we’d have liked a zag, but it’s that unpredictably that makes us love ‘em. Overall, we couldn’t be happier. Kudos kudos, Man Man.
Rabbit Habits 4/8 on Anti-.