Album of the Week, July 20: One Perfect Green Blanket by Barbara Manning
July 20, 2014 Leave a comment
Barbara Manning is an amazingly talented, sadly underappreciated indie music genius. A game of Six Degrees of Barbara Manning would connect huge, apparently unrelated numbers of alternative musicians in a fascinating net. A distinctive writer, singer, and guitarist, she got her start in the Bay area, forming the quirky jangle-pop band 28th Day with Cole Marquis (who has remained a regular collaborator for decades). After the demise of that band in 1986, Manning joined World of Pooh while simultaneously launching a solo career. Her first solo album was 1988’s powerful Lately I Keep Scissors, the title track of which also featured on the first Pooh disc. That band broke up in 1990 and Manning began considering her next solo project. In a 1997 interview with Perfect Music Forever, she describes the process:
I recorded it in little bits. I’d done one song there and then a few months later, I’d record another song. That was kind of a frustrating way of recording. But at least I’d get to record when a song was written — I’d record it right there and then.
While not her preferred approach, it resulted in the strongest offering of her long, complex career, the brief delight entitled One Perfect Green Blanket.
|Title||One Perfect Green Blanket
|Label||Heyday||Release Date||July 11, 1991|
|U.S. Chart||n/c||U.K. Chart||n/c|
The cawing of crows opens the disc, a dark, eerie sound that’s perfectly suited to the lo-fi rant Straw Man. Featuring a much more direct lyric than most of her work, it’s a compelling love-me-or-leave-me song with a great, energetic vocal.
Manning is a great writer, but she also appreciates songs that are well suited to her musical talents. She’s covered a huge array of writers (including Richard Thompson, Stephin Merritt, and Stuart Moxham). The second track on this disc is one of her most inspired borrowings, a spot-on cover of the Bats’ Smoking Her Wings. That she can take one of the New Zealand band’s finest moments and match its quiet, aching power is a true testament to her skills as a singer. Don’t Rewind is built on a very Bats-like riff with a delightful Manning lyric. A song of confusion and betrayal, it aches with the almost certainly doomed hope that barely holds together a fractured relationship.
Sympathy Wreath lets us know that the relationship is dead. A wonderful metaphor of loss, it’s perhaps the finest work in the Manning songbook. The lyric is lovingly crafted and Manning’s vocals are more tender and melodic than ever. That ache eases into Green a song noted in the liner notes as “recorded on a particularly sad day.” Manning presents a dazzling array of similes for the titular color, from the prosaic (“a ballpark”) to the unexpected (“a cat’s purr”). Each mention evokes a different shade of green, and while the song has a bittersweet feeling, it’s buoyed by a charming clarinet figure.
Lock Yer Room (Uptight) is a punkish warning song, an edgy, fierce track that features a vocal that conjures up a gritty Lou Reed. The menace continues with the far spookier Someone Wants You Dead. With a delivery that would work flawlessly in a lo-fi horror film, it’s creepy energy shows off Manning’s diverse talents nicely. The eight tracks (fittingly recorded on “good ole fashioned 8 track”) wrap up with an alternate version of Sympathy Wreath. It’s nice to see that Manning recognized the quality of the song, but it’s a shame that such a short album features a repeat. The “Demise” version is more stately and acoustic, providing a nice counterpoint. Strangely, it doesn’t work as well as the crisper, pointed original presented in track four.
In less than 30 minutes, Barbara Manning lays out a perfect resume of her musical skills. Edgy, melodic, sweet, brash, punk, folk, original, and brilliantly borrowed, One Perfect Green Blanket is the best overview of a monumental talent.
FURTHER LISTENING: Manning’s complicated career features many different credits and a fairly sporadic release pattern. Her best work is captured on the CD release of Blanket, which also features her solo debut, Lately I Keep Scissors. Her other standouts are the collaborative …sings with the Original Artists, which finds her teamed with Stuart Moxham and Jon Langford, and 1212 a stirring but overlong collection. She’s also released an EP inspired by her friendships with New Zealand talent, a collection of rarities, and work with two other bands, the SF Seals and the Go-Luckys. At some point, somebody needs to assemble a definitive overview of her fascinating career, but until then any individual disc that features Barbara Manning has something wonderful to offer.