Barbara Manning brings her burning fascination to the fore 

Barbara Manning brings her burning fascination to the fore

Barbara Manning brings her burning fascination to the fore

On Fire

In artistic and religious discourse, fire often represents inspiration, an imagination that burns with passion and creativity. But too much imagination, too bright a flame, just as easily betokens madness—a mind consumed by its own genius.

Barbara Manning, one of the more brilliantly quixotic indie-rockers of the past decade, seems to enjoy playing with fire. Superficially, it’s there on her records, where originals like “Burnsite” appear along with covers of Les Paul & Mary Ford’s “Blow the Smoke Away” and the Bats’ crepuscular “Smoking Her Wings.” More substantively, perhaps, this fascination is evident in Manning’s willingness to operate in the male-dominated indie-rock scene of the ’80s—career-wise, a great way to get burned, no matter how influential she might have been on Liz Phair and on the riot grrl movement.

Nowhere, however, has Manning rendered her pyromania as explicit as on “The Arsonist Story,” the wickedly humorous 18-minute song-cycle that opens 1212, her fourth and latest solo LP. “Fireman,” the record’s lead track, begins with a portentous flicker of guitar and bass. Several bars later, accompanied by a smoldering drum roll, Manning and Giant Sand’s Joey Burns chant “fire” until the music ignites with a crash of cymbal and guitar. It’s a perfectly stygian introduction for Evil, the story’s protagonist—a boy-arsonist who plays depraved piano, craves attention, and loves watching things burn.

Evil’s anti-heroics foreshadow the carnage of “Rickity Tikity Tin,” a tale of parricide and cannibalism that makes the singer’s reading of Richard Thompson’s fatalistic “End of the Rainbow” sound almost cheery by comparison. Manning’s music has always betrayed an eccentric, even madcap bent—perhaps most evident in her obsession with baseball and with random noise. Even so, 1212’s penchant for the macabre, right down to the doomed romance of “Blood of Feeling” and “Stain on the Sun,” might lead some listeners to believe that her genius has finally gotten the better of her. “The best thing you could do/Is not come to my rescue,” she sings on “Trapped and Drowning.” And that would doubtless be Manning’s response to those who think she’s gone off the deep end.

1212 certainly bears her out. By turns pensive (“I can feel all alone/Even when I’m with you”) and darkly funny (“The hydrant thinks, ‘What a relief!’/When in slips the hose”), it’s a sharply focused record. It even has a transparently life-affirming side that comes through in songs such as “Stammtisch” and “That Kid.” Much as Jonathan Swift did with “A Modest Proposal,” Manning frequently leaves her listeners unsettled—not quite certain whether she’s serious or just having a good laugh. “Sympathize with evil,” she sings. “Can you believe/Can you believe/That it’s me?”

1212—the title is a reference to the singer’s birthday—also finds Manning balancing her pop and experimental instincts more than on previous records, augmenting penumbral melodies with cello, violin, marimba, and Tijuana brass, though always in service of the songs’ disquieting lyrical themes. Harmonically, the music resembles the garage folk-rock of the mid- to late ’60s; to post-punk ears, it comes off as an amalgam of ’80s neo-psychedelia and New Zealand guitar-pop. It also owes pronounced spiritual debts to the Lesley Gore of “You Don’t Own Me”—only Manning is more tomboy than debutante—and to the art-damaged sounds of the Velvet Underground and (argh!) the Doors.

For that matter, all 1212 lacks conceptually is a cover of “Light My Fire.” And yet, with “Marcus Leid,” Manning clearly lights her own fire. “Put on your armor/Come with me/There’s a universe waiting/To be free,” she sings, assuming the persona of Joan of Arc. “I am the resurrected light.” After glimpsing the disturbing beauty that Manning finds in the heart’s forbidden recesses, not for a second do you doubt her.

Barbara Manning plays Wednesday, July 16, at Lucy’s Record Shop.

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