Man Man: Life Fantastic (ANTI-)

For a band that essentially occupies a niche—the Beefheart, Zappa, Waits niche—Philadelphia's Man Man circumvents the easy dip into parody or novelty by making memorable, swaggering music that is somehow simultaneously indebted and unique. On its sturdy fourth full-length, Man Man are more confident and refined, thanks in no small part to the tight production of Mike Mogis.

Despite its title, Life Fantastic is a dark affair. From the frantic buzz of opener "Knuckle Down," where singer Honus Honus warns, "Sadness, spread your legs," he is mining dark material, from dismemberment to cannibalism. Whether employing his throaty bark on the light "Oh, La Brea," or his grizzled croon on the jangly "Piranhas Club," Honus always manages to convey the anxiety of a man gleefully on the edge.

Mogis' touch, less-cluttered than Man Man often allows, provides levity and depth to the album's coarser material. Additionally, the band is tighter as an outfit, frequently making hairpin musical turns with ease. This is evident in the poise of the brassy rumba of "Haute Tropique," the electric waltz of "Shameless" and the hollow atmospherics of "Steak Knives."

Because it occasionally feels a bit too plotted, and lacks the unfettered thrill of the band's dangerously unkempt side, Life Fantastic may be considered by some to be a solid if unspectacular release. Yet even the instrumental toss-off "Eel Bros," a funky rundown akin to a classic Nintendo game soundtrack, is not without its merit, balancing mayhem and maturity.

Hopefully, it's not three years more before the group unleashes another outstanding batch of its lunatic sounds.

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