Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Barbara Manning knows. (Which is kind of surprising, given her photo. With that pixie haircut and dimply smile, I expected her to be one of those mealy-mouthed singers that TV commercials are always using to render toothless great soulful songs: remember that Verizon commercial that deracinated “People Got to Be Free”? Arrrgh!)
1212 is certainly an odd album for the late ‘90s. With virtually every indie rocker ensconsed in a bubble of self-regard, it’s wildy refreshing to hear Manning contemplating the world from *gasp* another person’s viewpoint. What’s even cooler is how she makes the side-long Arsonist Story suite cohere through shifting perspectives (there’s a narrator, the juvenile protagonist, his mother, and even the match) by genuine musical technique: key signatures are recapitulated, certain riffs crop up again and again, there’s even a little theme-and-variation between the piano melody of “Evil Plays Piano” and the guitar riff of “Evil Craves Attention.”
Manning’s strong but unshowy vocals (you’ll never get a trill out of her) are excellent, and her backing band of Joey Burns on bass and John Convertino on drums (Manning plays an also unshowy but steady guitar, but she gets in some nice licks like the grinding glissando after the match says “Don’t strike me” that sounds like a matchead being lit) bring a lot of understanding of dynamics and texture (nice swooping bass line in “Evil Craves Attention”, tasty floor tom fills in “Our Son”). It all brings out the best in what could be a big sloppy mess in other hands: a lengthy meditation on the wreckage that bad people leave behind them, and the fascination evil holds even for those who resist it. “Evil dines on mayhem,” she declares, and goes on to conclude that “Each one you come to save gets buried even deeper.” It’s hardly an up-with-life moment, but combined with the terrific music, it’s a genuinely satisfying listen. It’s good to hear someone working hard to make a good record.
Manning fleshes out 1212 with a few more originals “That Kid” is relentlessly catchy, and “Blood of Feeling” has a gleefully menacing mood and a grab bag of covers. Richard Thompson’s “End of the Rainbow” and Tom Lehrer’s “Rickity Tikity Tin” (also called “The Irish Ballad”) are respetively snarky and humorous continuations of the hovering evil of the opening suite, while covers of Amon Düül and the Deviants are pretty dull in a three-piece setting.
Still, it’s nice to have Barbara Manning singing proudly and construcing songs aimed at entertaining the listener. Let’s hope someone starts paying attention.
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