Anybody who’s seen Man Man perform knows that their CDs don’t do justice to their live shows. They’re a visual band: woolly bearded, usually wearing tennis shorts and warpaint, and thrashing around the stage like wildmen to tricky time changes. Rabbit Habits finds the band relying less on shock value and absurdity, and more intent on making a congruent album. Having already tested their boundaries, this is a mature showing, finding the band more relaxed (but still plenty tense), more structured (but still experimental), and more restrained (but still pretty crazy).
Like on their prior two albums The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face and Six Demon Bag, the music is exuberant and eclectic, but the tracks are less convoluted by excessive instrumentation. Sure there are a lot of instruments — distorted electric organs, junkyard percussion, horns and wind instruments, indefinable noises, and a surprising use of xylophone — but it’s spacious, and scattered throughout. Variety is the spice. There are times to shake a tail feather (the frenetic Looney Toons vibe of “The Ballad of Butterbean” and the head-jerking bungee cord bounce of “Top Drawer”) and times to reminisce (the haunting and heartbreaking sea shanty “Whalebones”). It’s like they’ve learned what they’re capable of achieving, and now they’re less interested in decadence and more excited by songcraft and pushing the limits within the traditional sense.
That said, in Man Man’s world, nothing is traditional. Everything is blanketed in a carnival smorgasbord: call it a fusion of klezmer, gypsy punk, and experimental rock that’s difficult to compare but most comparable to Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. Like Trout Mask Replica, this is a thinking man’s album, the type that reveals new facets with every listen. It dips and changes pace quite a few times over as singer Honus Honus adapts accordingly, flipping from Hot Hot Heat sandpapery irreverence to Jim Morrison’s bellowing grumbles. It’s strange and strangely beautiful, dividing equally between a cartoonish frenzy, sluggish flapper numbers, and mellow waltzes. It’s still not exactly accessible, but it’s their easiest listen to date, and a damn amazing and amusing one, if you’re feeling creative.