Philadelphia indie rockers Man Man have always sought to push the envelope. With the release of their fifth full-length album, they do that by taking their music in a direction no one expected: the mainstream.
To say that On Oni Pond is the band’s most accessible work is putting it mildly. The band that had always worn its quirkiness on its sleeve has put its love of absurdity aside in favor of a sound that is more direct and meaningful. Frontman Honus Honus (Ryan Kattner) is known for filling records with dark and twisted fictional narratives, but this time around, he looks inward for the band’s most introspective work. “I need a new skin for this old skeleton of mine ’cause this one that I’m in has let me down once again over time,” he says on the lead single, the oddly inspirational “Hold On.”
That change toward a more direct and honest expression was a deliberate one. Honus Honus considers the album a “reboot.” Stripped down and penned with collaboration from drummer Pow Pow (Christopher Powell), the result is an album that is more chiseled in every way. Known for his manic howls, Honus Honus’s vocals are mostly soft and soothing here. The song arrangements are more structured compared to the open experimentation of previous works.
That’s not to say that Man Man has gotten tame or lost its flare for the dramatic. The band’s piano-driven pop rock can still deliver a hook as dirty as Clayton Kershaw. The difference is the added nuance. “Pink Wonton” is an aggressive opener featuring Pow Wow’s rapid-fire drum fills, with the more frenetic moments tempered by melodic vocals. The string-scratching staccato guitars in “Fangs” perfectly compliment the bongo drum beat. Some of On Oni Pond‘s quietest moments are its best. “Deep Cover” stands out for its simplicity, Honus’s laments of a secret love drifting over lazy ukulele strums.
All of the Man Man staples are here, from the syncopated beats to the odd turns of phrase to the unlikely instrument combinations. At times, the band cuts loose with its trademark primal yowls and massive off-kilter riffs, as on the foreboding “Loot My Body.” Because these moments come less often, they make a greater impact. On Oni Pond could be considered the band’s a pop album, but it is pop only in that the songs are easy to digest and sing along with; the inventiveness and wild charisma of the band’s earlier work fortunately remains intact.