Tom Waits is rumored to have once said that he liked Man Man’s music because of how similar it sounded to his own. Evidence that this was actually said is hard to find, but it would make sense. Philadelphia’s Man Man gained a cult following with its first three records of flamboyant, vaudeville-style rock, complete with low-fi production and sporadic and unrehearsed instrumentation. However, up until now, the group seemed more interested in creating a chaotic atmosphere through wall-of-sound instrumentation and energy. While this approach can be greatly entertaining, it does neglect some listeners who want songs to which they can relate. With Life Fantastic, the group broadens its audience, sacrificing some of the energy for heartfelt, and sometimes depressing, songs about love and the absence of it.
The change in sound comes along with the addition of help in the production booth. For the first time, Man Man has enlisted the help of a producer, Bright Eyes and Monsters Of Folk’s own Mike Mogis. His input definitely appears to have brought more focus in the group’s recordings, seen especially where the band is venturing into new territory. “Steak Knives” is a perfect example. Lead singer Honus Honus, aka Ryan Kattner, gives a rough growl that is the same as ever. His echoing moans scream “Are you my babe/Or did I have to work so hard for nothing,” a kind of subject rarely covered on Man Man’s previous three albums. Or maybe it has been covered, but this is just the first time it’s been noticed above the demented dance-along instrumentation. Aiding Kattner’s vocals is only an acoustic guitar and a string section that creeps its way in halfway through the song. The group ventures into similar but more filled-out territory with the seven-minute epic “Shameless” and the easy, soothing, string-driven closer, “Oh, La Brea.”
Why the album succeeds in this new territory is due to the medium between Man Man’s old and new sound. There are still plenty of instances of that sloppy and crowded yet groove-heavy sound that gained the group such a strong following with albums past. Songs like “Spooky Jookie” and “Knuckle Down” still sound like going back and watching Sesame Street after 10 years, only this time on hallucinogens. The band still has that mastery of orchestration, producing large, cinematic sounds with almost anything imaginable. Sometimes it’s honky-tonk piano, sometimes it’s a warped string section, or sometimes it’s a drum set made out of everything found in a junkyard. Man Man has an image to uphold, and it does that while refining its focus. The group has moved forward conceptually but at times still sounds like the trained animals and clowns from the circus that ambushed the orchestral pit, and that’s just fine.