Barbara Manning: 1212

Barbara Manning

BARBARA MANNING WOULD make a hell of a baby-sitter. She can sing a line such as "there's nothing to grow up for anymore" like she's lulling a newborn babe to sleep. When she yells, "Evil! Evil!" it's easy to envision little kids leaning back, mock afraid and genuinely thrilled. Her voice is calm and soothing, but not too soothing. She knows how to weave a spell, tell a story, set a mood, keep us on edge: What happened then, Auntie Barbara? the rug rats might say. Manning's new album 1212 even comes with a Grimm's-worthy fairy tale, a vignette about a little girl who "chopped her baby brother in two" and served him (to the neighbors) as "stew." This knack for spooked storytelling is coupled with sly, offhand, crafty song compositions that emphasize the indie-intimacy ethic in which artists bypass the rawk shtick for expressionist sound-without-fury. And Manning's sound sculptures do so without drowning in indie vagueness, either.

Manning has been doing this for years, both solo and in bands (SF Seals and 28th Day). Her releases Lately I Keep Scissors and One Perfect Green Blanket (paired on a single Heyday Records CD) helped define sloppy and blissful indie guitar pop in the early '90s. On 1212 Manning takes her own songs and the songs of others (Richard Thompson, Tom Lehrer, et al.) into the sonic wilderness, and while the results are formally solid, the songwriting is also artfully polished, as is the welcome addition of studio FX.

The first half of 1212 contains macabre, intriguing story-songs, opening with a 19-minute suite about a fire-starting kid, dubbed "The Arsonist Story," that evokes the Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" in its self-conscious, tell-tale silliness (a smart strategy, since using "our son" as a pun on "arson" would sound unforgivably stupid in any other context). The "story" ends with a murky, beautiful piece titled "Trapped and Drowning" that needs no narrative aim to justify its gorgeous seven minutes of muted trumpet and dirge-like guitar strums. The second half of the record is a collection of college radio-ready pop tunes. The shoe-in highlight, "Marcus Leid," sees Manning assume the voice of Joan of Arc, and proceeds to hold you spellbound for four minutes of nothing but bare-bones vocals, bass, and accordion--until the final chorus, when Manning lets the full band in for a wholly satisfying climax. It's beautiful, and so is the record it rode in on.

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