Dipping its toes into polished pop on 2011’s Life Fantastic, Philadelphia indie act Man Man obviously found the water rejuvenating—with On Oni Pond, the band has been reborn as hook-focused, crossover experimentalists. It’s no solemn baptism, however. Rather, the record is an enthusiastic belly flop into accessibility, a frolic in melodies, rhythms, and genres that aims for broader appeal while still indulging in the off-kilter inclinations that makes the group’s music so delightfully unpredictable. Bringing back producer Mike Mogis for the second time, it’s an ambitiously disciplined effort; by deploying its Zappa-esque eccentricities with purpose, the group focuses the fracas and avoids sounding wacky for wackiness’ sake.
The new approach is well summed-up in the album’s most notable track, “Head On.” A lush, measured retro-rocker, the song tamps down its guitars and soars on a delicate interplay of sweetly grand strings, meandering synth lines, and gentle harmonies. On first pass, frontman Honus Honus’ lyrics make for a simple, cutely substance-devoid pop anthem (“Hold on to your heart / Hold it high above flood waters / Never let nobody drag it under”), but, just under the surface, it’s clear that Man Man’s slyly dark edge hasn’t gone anywhere (“The life you have led / That is always a mess / Are you dreaming of death? / Are there ghosts in your chest?”). Never before has the band been so charming and catchy while taking such care to disguise its brashly macabre themes.
On Oni Pond is chocked full of other beautifully crafted oddities, from the slick, sweaty stomper “Loot My Body,” which winds through a series of big brass-and-sax detours, to “Deep Cover,” a subdued mandolin strummer that builds with swells of horns and an achingly crooned refrain. Though the group relies a bit more on piano-pop than usual—there’s even a one-minute Tin Pan Alley-esque aside (“Curtains”) thrown in for good measure—the record delivers a smorgasbord of styles, serving up dance punk to rock ’n’ soul to new-wave psychedelia with little time wasted in transition. The treatment is perhaps a touch jarring, as always, but is also a reminder that Man Man hasn’t undertaken a forced or false reinvention. The album shrewdly brings order to the disorder, without streamlining away the band’s agreeably quirky identity.