Space Oddity

Signs of intelligent life in the universe: Manplanet
Kii Arens

The future ain't what it used to be. There was a time when we used to look forward to domed cities whose skyscapes were dotted with buzzing hovercraft, with automatic walkways taking us back to the homes where we'd be greeted by dutiful robot maids. Now that we're promised little more than incrementally increased workloads and SuperTargets scattered across the countryside, the future has begun to look a lot like, well, Bloomington.

Even the Apocalypse has grown less sexy over the years. In the Eighties, new wavers pined wistfully for nuclear war--most likely, as critic Rob Sheffield once noted, because that's when all the nerdy kids figured they would finally get laid. The end of the world has since lost its aphrodisiacal aftertaste. Despite its apocalyptic name, Anthrax is certainly no turn-on. No wonder the Bush administration is nostalgic for SDI. The time has come for a band to recall how terrifying it was that the space station Skylab was going to drop out of the stratosphere into our backyards.

Manplanet is that band. At past performances, the local quartet has staged the full Skylab crash. (Their debut album was titled after the former space station.) The last time I caught their show, however, was at the Entry--too small a venue for such theatrics, even with thick curls of smoke surrounding the four men, who were drinking from beakers and wearing different-colored vinyl spacesuits. We had to settle for guitars shooting blasts of pyrotechnic fury and the occasional flash pot. Having just wended my way through a throng of wayward Willie and the Bees fans in the Mainroom--a time capsule of its own--I felt a serious sense of temporal displacement.

The Entry stage that night was dotted with TVs of various vintages, each displaying the band as captured by onstage Webcams. This addition to Manplanet's act demonstrates the band's ability to turn trash into glitzy scenery--the TVs in question barely work. "We played in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the day of the Super Bowl and tried to tune the game in," guitarist/songwriter Jeff Ham, a.k.a. Jefferson White, tells me. "The one Super Bowl in years that was interesting, and we couldn't get it in."

Ham is calling from Philadelphia, where just last September Manplanet were forced to perform in scruffy street clothes. The night before, in nearby Westchester, someone had swiped their colorful vinyl suits. Such are the perils of spending so much time on the road: Manplanet have toured extensively and have been met with some national notoriety. They've also been helped by a bit of local media synergy: Manplanet can be seen performing the theme to the television show Let's Bowl! on Comedy Central.

Ham started Manplanet in 1999, after the amicable dissolution of his other band, local flesh rockers Detroit. He decided to up the conceptual ante, and found three musicians willing to follow his lead. "They were pretty receptive--surprisingly receptive--to dyeing their hair," he notes.

Manplanet's songs are sculpted to fit the space-age concept, offering a self-conscious re-creation of the new wave. The band's current EP, An Introduction to Musicianship, provides a smart introduction to its concise power-pop excursions, starting with the liftoff of "All Systems Go" and plummeting back down with the extended finale "Back to Earth." The arrangements feature aerodynamically streamlined solos that recall Elliot Easton of the Cars. But as with any band that puts so much into its live show, the songs do lose something without the visuals. The production here doesn't quite make the stiffness of the band's robotic rhythms feel intentional.

But it does sound otherworldly. Which seems appropriate, since space has always been the last refuge for misfits and outsiders, be they gawky Eighties teens and Seventies androgynes or the whole subset of cosmic-minded African Americans from Sun Ra and George Clinton to Samuel Delany. Still, it's no surprise that Manplanet have found an audience in "normal," out-of-the-way towns such as Kalamazoo. "There are two insane asylums in town," Ham says. "Once the state cut funding, they pretty much let everyone out in the streets."

But then the people who wrap their heads in tinfoil to block the ELF rays are halfway toward wearing a spacesuit.

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