Tuesday, April 04, 2006

What's He Building In There?

Calum Marsh

I moved into a new apartment this week. It's right downtown, minutes away from anything and everything. Wanting to take advantage of the convenient location, last Sunday I go for a little stroll down Bank street, which boasts a reasonable assortment of record shops, independent and otherwise. I reach my personal favourite, Organized Sound - I'm pleasantly surprised by its closeness to my new home - and I begin to take a look. As I flip through the vinyl, an awkward twenty-something bounds in. He is not greeted, or acknowledged at all, by the two hip kids behind the counter.

Oh, but he's cool. And he wants them to know it. He's shopping in an independent record store, afterall, where it's all too easy for the clientele (the customers, not the band) to feel alienated by the snobby staff. He glances at the CD's, picking up copies of various albums and brandishing them for all to see, trying without grace to prove his worth. He grabs a copy of Illinoise: "Mmmhmm," he nods, hoping someone will notice, "This is a good one."

"Yeah," says one of the cool kids, not looking.

"So . . . uh," the awkward kid begins, quickly capitalizing on the brief acknowledgement, "Do you have any . . . LCD Soundsystem CD's?"

The employee who first spoke slowly rises from his seat, moving over to the wall where the awkward kid stands. They carry the self-titled record from last year, he tells him.

"Oh . . ." the kid says, quickly adding "I already have that one". Ooh, that probably impressed him, he thinks. "Is that all you carry of theirs?"

He replies with a simple "yep". There is a long pause. "That's the only one there is". The last line does it. The kid doesn't stand a chance now. Not cool. End of story. He completely gives up: "So . . . What's new? What's cool these days?" The other clerk looks over, hiding a smirk. They don't know what to say. Anyone who needs to ask what's cool probably won't like what's good, right? Do we recommend something that's being talked about but kind of sucks (read: Arctic Monkeys), or do we go all out an give him something bizarre? They choose the latter.

"Man Man", the second employee says from across the room. "Yeah, Man Man is totally cool," the first clerk agrees, "Everyone's talking about him".

I stop flipping records. Man Man? I've heard of him, haven't I? I think about it. I quickly scan my iPod. Nope, don't have any. I make a mental note and head home. A little research turns up a Pitchfork rave and way too many blog mentions. That's where I heard it from: Bloody everywhere.

Okay, another quick anecdote: Near the end of December last year, I started compiling my year-end Top Album list. I know it's impossible to hear every great album of any given year, but I made an effort in '05 to hear as much as possible. The list I ended up with included the usual suspects - Antony, Sufjan, Clap Your Hands - and I got fairly comfortable with how it looked.

I posted it to my MSN Blog (which, if you're bored, you can read here), and I was immediately called on it: "Campfire Headphase!", Tess was quick to shout, "Why didn't you like it?" It wasn't that I didn't like it. I hadn't heard it. Yeah, Boards Of Canada were - and still are - one of my favourite bands, but for some reason I just hadn't bothered to take the time to listen to their newest record. First listen: My God, this is amazing. I was overcome with a deep regret for having put it off for so long. Sigh.

Okay, okay, the point of all this: I'm similarly upset about not having heard Six Demon Bag, Man Man's latest album, until last night. What a hugely enjoyable and grand disc this is. This music makes me happy. I love Man Man. Sometimes it feels nice to jump on the bandwagon. I hope that awkward kid listens to the clerks and pick up Six Demon Bag; he won't regret it.

You've already heard that Man Man is good, though, and I don't want this to be a mindless parade piece. My intention here is to briefy talk about Man Man's obvious influences which are made immediately (and intentionally, I imagine) clear; chiefly among Man Man's roots is one of my all time favourite songwriters, Tom Waits. Man Man's gruff but affecting vocals are so reminiscent of Waits's that Six Demon Bag almost sounds like a follow-up to Real Gone.

Tom Waits, as you may know, is an infamous singer, songwriter, and actor. His trademark voice has earned him widespread notoriety, to the degree that any artist with an abrasive or interesting singing voice must face countless Waits comparisons. But while Waits's voice is his most commonly referred to quality, it's not his best: Waits's lyrics rank among the finest ever written, earning him all kinds of critical attention and establishing his work as art of the highest musical order (Any "weird" music with well written lyrics must decidedly be, to the pretentious folk, "high art"). His albums are about a subversive underground culture of weirdos and late night locales - if these songs were movies, they'd be shot in grainy black and white film stock, and every character would smoke. Fitting, then, that Waits appears so often in the films of Jim Jarmusch - if Jarmusch's movies were songs, they'd be rough and poetic.

I highly recommend that you delve into the Tom Waits discography. Rain Dogs, Mule Variations, and Swordfishtrombones are all perfect, and the rest of his albums (which are many; Waits is prolific) are also worthwhile. If you're already into the Waits sound, I recommend moving on to his films. Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law, which stars Waits and fellow musician John Lurie, is a subdued dark comedy that follows Waits and Lurie as they share a jail cell and plot their escape. If you haven't seen it, you're in for a treat. Trust me. Jarmusch's Mystery Train doesn't exactly star Waits, but he plays the voice of the radio DJ (which plays a reasonably big part in the movie). If you enjoy those two, explore further: Jarmusch's filmography is as strong as Waits's discography, and I recommend learning more about both.

Man Man - Feathers
Man Man - Hot Bat
Tom Waits - What's He Building?
Tom Waits - Clap Hands
Tom Waits - Rain Dogs

Tom Waits - Real Gone
Tom Waits - Rain Dogs
Tom Waits - Mule Variations
Man Man - Six Demon Bag

Comments on "What's He Building In There?"


Blogger mintyfresh said ... (4/4/06 1:38 am) : 

You can always count on Organized for the bizarre recommendation over the "already getting rave reviews but is sort-of meh" approach. It's part of why people love it there.

And I can totally relate to doing that ipod scan upon hearing their recommendations. Inevitably I have either *never* heard of what they're recommending or it tweaks that "I think I downloaded a track of theirs before" mad ipod query. I always leave there with a list of bands I must research, no matter what I went in for.


Blogger Ekko said ... (4/4/06 6:22 am) : 

Tom Waits rocks. My favorite song of his is Heart of a Saturday Night.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (4/4/06 11:42 am) : 

you might want to check out John Lurie's show "Fishing with John" on dvd, He and Tom Waits go fishing in jamaica.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (4/4/06 7:44 pm) : 

oh yes, oh my!....this series is brilliant, there's a criterion dvd of some of the episodes, and the whole lot can be had on several vhs installments (it's best in semi-doses, however). everyone should remember the name and grab it when they randomly see it at some lake-side, summer-cabin general store....the full watching enjoyment comes with purchasing the corner store's expired jelly-candied fish. an afternoon knawing sweedish fish and humming the 'fishing with john' theme song? all you need is a hammock and puppy to play with and the day's only discouragement would be that the sun had to set.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (4/4/06 11:57 pm) : 

also, I thinks that the song "Hot Bats" is in reference to the captain beefheart album "Hot Rats".

my favorite fishing with john is the one with willem dafoe... hilarious.


Blogger Calum Marsh said ... (5/4/06 12:01 am) : 

I agree. And "Ice Dogs" is a reference to Waits's "Rain Dogs" (or so I assume).


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (16/5/06 12:15 pm) : 

Hot Rats is a Frank Zappa album.

Beefheart sings on "Willie the Pimp" though.


Anonymous Dave said ... (12/6/07 2:37 pm) : 

Have you heard of the band What's He Building In There? - they are influenced by Man Man and Waits...alongside progressive metal



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