The problem with most of New York’s “anti-folk” acousticians is that they can’t shake Bob Dylan out of their Woody Guthrie fantasies. Wrapping themselves in the poverty and left-wing politics of classic troubadours, their rock roots make them selfconscious, overly aware and ambitious: stylemongering stars-in-training rather than hard-traveling truth-is-its-own-reward balladeers. That’s not to say the genre hasn’t unearthed talented artists and worthwhile records, merely that the price of honesty has gone up over the years.
On his engaging first album, Manning strums a simple guitar and sings intelligent, occasionally annoying, lyrics in a weedy tenor. While covering all the obligatory self-referential scene bases (Michelle Shocked, Cindy Lee Berryhill and Woody Guthrie all get namechecks), he spends a lot of time rambling (“The Hitch-Hikers’ Blues,” “The Airport Blues,” “The Sicilian Train Blues”) and singing about women. So what else is new? More interesting than entertaining, Roger Manning offers a clear lesson in the neo-folk form’s strengths and contradictions.