Philly art-skronkers Man Man are back, and as raw and as drunk as ever. Lead singer Honus Honus (nee: Ryan Kattner), the dutiful lovechild of Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, sounds like he spent the last three years marinating in a vat of whiskey. The quintet's fourth album, Life Fantastic, embraces and advances the same formula that has powered Man Man's chaotic cuts since 2004's Man in the Blue Turban: honky-tonk piano, plinking xylophones and the guttural pleas of a truly tortured man.
The most notable distinction on Life Fantastic is Mike Mogis's (Bright Eyes, Cursive, Rilo Kiley) highly stylized production. Saddle Creek's in-house guru is the first outside producer Man Man has worked with and, to hear the band tell it, the unlikely pairing was been born of necessity. In an interview with Stereogum, they talked about needing to "kick some fresh air into the mix [and] open the windows." Mogis, with his fondness for emphatic strings, has done just that. There's a deviant orchestral circus staged just beneath the surface of "Spooky Jookie," and the urgent "Dark Arts" seems to be foaming at the gullet.
Man Man's most poignant moments remain their stark piano ballads, and the ones on Life Fantastic are throatier and rhythmically barren. Throughout, the songs boast a newfound sonic restraint and lyrical depth. What starts as a solitary growl on "Steak Knives" ends in little more than a whimper. And as the title track climaxes, Honus howls, "The children, they are crying/ You hand them black umbrellas/ Tell them the world is dying." Life fantastic? Maybe if you're Charles Bukowski.