Six Demon Bag
Still steeped in half-ironic mustaches and carnivalesque theatrics, Philly's infamous Man Man are back with another knotty barrage of Rhodes-anchored junkyard stomp. This one, like 2004's breakout The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face, finds photogenic frontman Honus Honus whipping his men into a series of wily frenzies punctuated by singsong tavern-style shanties. The men, though, aren't the same. A retooled lineup includes recruits like Christopher Powell, familiar from his work with kindred spirits Icy Demons and Need New Body.
And while it's taken time for the new version of Man Man to jell live, Six Demon Bag is carefully constructed around the band's strengths-jarring shifts in tempo, fairytale-damaged lyrical nonsense ("Fee fi fo fum/ I smell the blood of an Englishman"), wisps of gypsy prancing, multitentacled percussion and Honus' creepy persona, still evocative of Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart.
On "Banana Ghost" the listener is so blanketed by cacophony that it's easy to miss how conventional and meaningful the following line is: "Please don't go and build a fence around your heart/ Like you've done before when you're losing ground." The song crashes to a finish seconds later, as if Honus realized how close he'd come to baring his real feelings, how they almost penetrated that gauntlet of irony. Love comes up again on "Skin Tension," and again it's a refreshing foil to sinister lyrics like, "You should always run with a loaded gun in your mouth."
The closing "Ice Dogs" brings in backup singers for some odd doo-wop while strings sing, a trumpet punches and a saner male voice comes in as a counterpoint to Honus' gravelly growl. It's the band's coolest hat-trick yet, and certainly their most accessible song. So it goes with these guys-one second you're reeling from the heft and range of it all, and the next you're humming it to yourself while skipping down the street. Because it never fails that when you least expect it, Man Man start making sense.
Download: "Black Mission Goggles."
The Cactus Has a Point
Sarcastic and silly but downright studious when it comes to crafting songs, cousins Pat Finnerty and Mike Quinn first turned heads with their quartet Lee. With just a 3-inch demo CD and a few Doc Watson's shows (the Plain Parade gals declared them "a non-annoying cross between the Apples in Stereo and Pavement") to their name, the band morphed into Okay Paddy with their '90s indie rock vibe and most of their songs intact.
Despite ties to the same Scranton scene that birthed the Prison Jazz label (which released the A-Sides' stunning Hello, Hello last year) and the Sw!ms (which Quinn used to play in), Okay Paddy have been low on the totem pole of Philly-area bands thus far. Even 2004's knockout Hunk EP, featuring the instant classic "The Waive" (a kiss-off told in reverse-"Well she gave me the waive/ The motherfuckin' waive/ And she's never comin' back"), didn't garner a fraction of the attention it deserved.
Now the world gets a second chance with The Cactus Has a Point, a 10-song platter that's being given a proper PR push. The thing is, it's not an easy record to get into. They're no Man Man, mind you, but Okay Paddy's slanted, sunshiney anthems seem a bit more opaque and subdued here than when they're ringing out onstage amid the boys' amped-up charisma (you haven't lived until you've seen Finnerty don a scarf to cover Bowie).
Cactus is a grower, then, with nods to the great power pop that came before it. The opening "Your Bar's on Fire" comes off all Weezer, while "Where's the Taste" has the often-borrowed chord progression from the Kinks' "Picture Book." The band is best when striking out on its own into a nest of surreal lyrics, chiming guitars and sugary harmonies, as on "Put Them in the Cages" and "Gas Money." The precious "Lighter Later" and the acoustic country-kissed "Furrier" are departures that nicely showcase the band's quiet side. When hard-pressed, these are the songs to slip onto a mix for the person you've got a crush on-after "The Waive," of course.
Download: "Gas Money."
Ride of the Blueberry Winter
If Okay Paddy deliver better live than in the studio, the Sw!ms onstage are a double-edged sword. Sure, the band's organ-rough garage songs roar like they never could on record, but they're typically played so damn loud that newcomers flee the room in search of cocktail napkins to tear into makeshift earplugs. With the sprawling 16-song Ride of the Blueberry Winter, though, the Sw!ms are in danger of putting their hometown of Scranton-a town so dull it was tapped for the setting of the American version of The Office-on the indie rock map for good.
Brian Langan, an ambitious frontman with a curly balloon of hair and a fondness for medieval-style fur vests, is as colorful a songwriter as they come. The fantastic world that pours from his head rivals Narnia and Middle-earth in classical influence and joyous vigor. There are valkyries, a "vermilion archer," depth charges, milkmaids and plenty of blood. (An online ad for the album pokes fun at these elements, reading, "Lava. Krakens. Centaurs. This is serious.")
Backed by bassist Matt Walsh, drummer Claire Connelly (who's since left the band) and multi-instrumentalist Philip Price (also of An Albatross), Langan channels that endless weirdness into some of the catchiest songs you've ever heard. Nuggets-era psych and garage is smudged into blooze and Elephant 6-style mid-fi, split evenly between raging rave-ups and doe-eyed lullabies.
Blueberry Winter is an album you could bond with your parents over, without any compromising of taste. You could even hit a Sw!ms show together, just to ponder Langan's goofy wardrobe before making a break for those napkins when it gets too heavy.