Barbara Manning is far from a prolific writer of songs, but she’s a great one, with subtle, unforgettable melodies and lyrics that cut to the heart of personalities and relationships. She’s also got a gift for interpreting other people’s songs (many of which have been written specifically for her clear Californian twang) and an intriguing taste for combining straightforward singing and guitar playing with much more experimental sounds.
28th Day, a pretty good guitar-pop band of the kind that was so common in the mid-’80s, released a single seven-song mini-album in the US during its existence. The group’s main significance, as the packaging of the 1992 edition makes clear, was as Manning’s first band (she played bass; guitarist Cole Marquis wrote most of the songs but drummer Michael Cloward co-wrote a couple). While managing to make some fine music, the trio never captured the richness and power of its live sound in the studio. The expanded Skyclad CD contains thirteen songs (one is called “Instrumental #1”); Cloward’s Devil in the Woods label subsequently offered a cassette version that appended live material and other things to the CD’s contents. The best songs are Manning’s “Burnsite” and “Stones of Judgement,” though “Dead Sinner” and a reworking of the folk song “This Train” are noteworthy, too.
After 28th Day broke up, Manning joined singer/guitarist Brandan Kearney’s noise project World of Pooh and turned it into a rock band. The group’s sole album, The Land of Thirst, commands high prices from collectors, and with good reason: it’s a magnificent record. The terrible tensions within the band are hidden by wan melodies, but come out in the brutal lyrics: “Stay away, your flesh disgusts me/Your attentions are an ugly parody of things I’ve always wanted” (from Kearney’s “Mr. Coffee-Nerves”). Almost every song is a killer, but the best are Manning’s “Scissors” (covered by everyone from Peter Jefferies to Yo La Tengo), Kearney’s “Playing One’s Own Piano” and their collaboration, the simple, tragic “I’m on the Wrong Side.” Secret weapon: drummer Jay Paget, who later joined Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. A subsequent World of Pooh single was notable for Manning’s “Someone Wants You Dead”; the long-delayed A Trip to Your Tonsils EP rounded up most of the band’s remaining recordings, including another version of “Stones of Judgement” and a cover of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “Blow the Smoke Away.”
Around the same time that she got involved in World of Pooh, Manning made her first solo album, Lately I Keep Scissors. Marquis, Kearney, producer Greg Freeman, drummer Melanie Clarin and Manning’s sister Terri all play on the record, which includes different versions of World of Pooh’s “Scissors” and “Somewhere Soon.” Aside from “Breathe Lies” (co-written with Lindsey Thrasher of Vomit Launch, who covered Manning’s “Every Pretty Girl”) and a cover of Marquis’ “Prophecy Written,” all the songs are her own; they reveal a songwriter of tremendous lyrical power and breadth of sonic vision — “Make It Go Away” almost sounds like My Bloody Valentine.
The eight-song One Perfect Green Blanket, on the other hand, has the vague scent of filler. There’s a remake of “Someone Wants You Dead,” an extra track from a foreign pressing of Scissors, a nice Bats cover (“Smoking Her Wings”) and another Marquis song done for a compilation; that leaves three new songs, one of which (“Sympathy Wreath,” a farewell to World of Pooh) appears twice. The CD appends all of Scissors.
After an exquisite solo single (the live staple “Haze Is Free (Mounting a Broken Ladder)” and a cover of Wings’ “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”) and a pair of 7-inchers done in collaboration with Bananafish magazine editor Seymour Glass (one under the name the Glands of External Secretion), Manning reappeared with her new band, the SF Seals (named after a baseball team; the title and artwork of One Perfect Green Blanket also reflect an interest in minor-league ball). The group started with a lineup of Manning, Clarin, bassist/singer Michelle Cernuto (who wrote a handful of their early songs) and guitarist Lincoln Allen, though it gradually evolved into Manning and whomever happened to be on stage or in the studio with her at the time. The Baseball Trilogy EP presents three songs about diamond greats: covers of Les Brown’s “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio” (with a neat little-big-band arrangement) and Mad V. Dog’s “The Ballad of Denny McLain” and Manning’s own “Dock Ellis,” about the man who pitched a no-hitter while tripping on acid.
The Seals’ first full-length, Nowhere, is a disappointment: lukewarm songwriting, a weak remake of the seductive Manning/Glass single “8’s,” a couple of okay covers, a dreadful noise piece and too many songs that dissolve into protracted feedback or sound-collage endings. It’s not without its great moments, but they’re best experienced by going for the single, which pairs “Still?” with a punchy cover of Faine Jade’s ’60s psych obscurity, “Don’t Underestimate Me.”
Barbara Manning Sings With the Original Artists is a peculiar but mostly successful album. With Manning employed primarily for her interpretive skills, backing is provided by a cast of Feel Good All Over label regulars, including the Mekons’ Jon Langford, the Coctails’ John Upchurch and ex-Young Marble Giant Stuart Moxham (whose ’90s band is named the Original Artists). The ten-song repertoire consists of a pair by Langford (including “Big Eye,” heard in a different version on the Killer Shrews’ album), five by Moxham, one by Manning (the outstanding “Optimism Is Its Own Reward”) and covers of “Cry Me a River” and Lora Logic’s “Martian Man.” Everybody involved gets poppy and cuts loose a little, especially Moxham, whose “Daddy Bully” has go-go checks all over it. It’s probably the most fun record Manning’s made.
The second SF Seals album, Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows, boasts eleven musicians, including a core group of Manning, Clarin, guitarist Brently Pusser (of Three Day Stubble) and bassist Margaret Murray (of U.S. Saucer). Unlike earlier records, it’s clearly Manning’s show this time, and the album is better for it. The production is lovely — the vibraphones on “Ladies of the Sea” and calliope on “Kid’s Pirate Ship” are especially nice — and Manning’s songs are simple and sweet (though “Pulp” has disturbing undertones of domestic violence). As usual, the cover choices are unexpected and fine: this time, the band essays songs by the Pretty Things, Faust and John Cale.
Northern Exposure Will Be Right Back, the first full-length Glands Of External Secretion record, is a self-indulgent mess: tape collages of recorded moments in the lives of Manning and Seymour Glass (radio shows, malfunctioning refrigerators, birthday parties, unwell cats). It’s also completely charming and engaging, an audio scrapbook of their friendship and their love for peculiar sounds. Almost every track has some kind of organized instrumental component, though only a few are recognizable as songs — most delightfully, a version of the Bee Gees’ “Run to Me” recorded by Manning and her sister when they were teenagers. The Dead C’s Michael Morley makes a guest appearance on a couple of the sequences that were recorded live.
In ’92, singer/guitarist/songwriter Cole Marquis returned from a period out of music and unveiled the Snowmen, his quartet with guitarist Rich Avella; the group has so far issued albums in Germany and the US.