Between “Oni Swan” and “Pink Wonton”, the first two tracks on On Oni Pond, Man Man progress with a startling swiftness from brass instrumentals to an all out “Monster Mash” parody. This wax and wane of maudlin respectability and grating cheese music has always played prominently on Man Man albums, finally coming as close as possible to “plaguing” one without actually ruining it. Beneath the pounds of silliness are legitimately interesting songs that toe the apparently fine line between Islands and Vampire Weekend.
I can’t imagine the latter having been much of an actual influence on Man Man, but the clean, warm evenness of On Oni Pond is reminiscent of Modern Vampires of the City’s fireplace dynamic. Though there is also the “Ladies of Cambridge”-esque “Sparks” and the low key chamber pop of first single “Head On” to lend credence to the association. This is the second Man Man album to reference demons in its title, but Honus Honus’ satanic edge has been substituted out in an attempt to replicate the more darling, tweed jacket indie sound of groups like Islands or The Love Language.
There still some classically Man Man moments: “Deep Cover” plays out the same calm during the storm story as Rabbit Habbits’ “Doo Right” and sounds an awful lot like Six Demon Bag’s “Van Helsing Boombox”. As usual, the album is a mix of uptempo numbers and lower key sea shanty fare that I believe were originally designed into Man Man albums in order to give the group’s drummers a break. On On Oni Pond the schematics are far less jarring and the songs sounding much more balanced with even a lower key jam like “Deep Cover” being almost dynamically equivalent to its upbeat follow up “Pyramids.”
The focus, for once, seems to be less on momentum and rhythm and more on straightforward indie rock songwriting. Never have I heard symphonic instruments used so determinedly as comedic barriers intended to keep the listener from taking the songs on On Oni Pond too seriously. The very occasional background vocals can be jarring and off-putting, like the “just take whatever you want”s of “Loot My Body” – the startlingly sexual but also very pirate-themed title of which perhaps best exemplifies the general mood of On Oni Pond. Nothing is quite so detrimental to any one track as the weird, tuned-up vocals on “Pink Wonton”, which might otherwise be one of Man Man’s most impressive melodic efforts.
It sometimes feels as though On Oni Pond was made from a grab bag of indie tropes that had all been exhausted by 2009; the catch, here, is that they are executed with nearly flawless precision. On Oni Pond isn’t so much uneven as it is unbalanced; no one song or section of the album is more aggressively interest-grabbing than any other, but the whole thing feels a little off kilter – as though a generally agreed upon narrative is left unenlightened. There isn’t much on On Oni Pond that will distinguish itself from previous Man Man releases, but the songwriting is tight enough to reinvigorate anyone’s waning interest in the group.