A Fire Burning Brightly

Let me put it to you bluntly: Barbara Manning, a minor celebrity in

the indie world and a veteran of World of Pooh and the San

Francisco Seals, has recorded a flat-out great album. 1212,

containing about an hour of Manning's music, is another indication

of her real and enduring talent. Although Manning has often been

compared to other female artists, such as Suzanne Vega (who she

often sounds uncannily similar to) or Liz Phair (who shares little

with Manning besides her gender and her record label), after

dozens of recordings, 1212 should, at the least, show that

Manning is a wonderfully unique artist who possesses her own,

rich voice.

1212 begins with a 20-minute suite of songs called "The

Arsonist

Story," which is about just that. Beginning with news accounts of a

burning

building, going on to a mother's realization that her teenage son is

the

guilty arsonist, and ending with the boy's drowning/suicide,

"Arsonist Story,"

consisting of four songs that weave in and out of each other,

mixing viewpoints,

musical styles and narratives, is in many ways typical of Manning's

style.

Taking what is a normal day in the lives of normal people and

merging it with an

extraordinary event, the San Francisco-based Manning has an

uncanny ability to communicate what's going on inside the heads

of people you're more likely to meet walking down the street than

in an Academy Awards fete. And "Arsonist Story" displays

this quality in spades. From her description of the mother's

realization of her son's actions (she saw it in his "wild eyes" when

he came home) on the suite's best track, "Evil Craves

Attention/Our Son 10x10" to her description of the arsonist's

alienation and ultimate death ("Trapped and Drowning"), Manning

hits everything right on the head -- every word rings true, every

change in music feels just right. And what a range of music it is:

"Evil

Craves Attention..." begins with a straight-up pop feel, with catchy

hooks

and a strong chorus (which focuses, not incidentally, on the

repetition of

"evil" ); "Trapped and Drowning," on the other hand, is an

expansive, almost

dreamlike composition, with horns soulfully singing out muted

desperation in

the background.

Although much of 1212 (the date of Manning's birthday -

Dec. 12)

has a dark tone to it, Manning's seemingly endless ability to come

up with

great melodies makes the album seem eerily at odds with itself at

times. "End

of the Rainbow," a song whose lyrics include "Life is so lousy in

the

cradle... There's nothing to grow up for anymore" (a bleak attitude

if I ever

heard one) is nonetheless the type of tune you're likely to find

yourself

humming on a sunny afternoon.

Although it's hard to pick out highlights -- song after song, you

convince

yourself that this is going to be the single, this is going to be the hit

song -- there are some standouts. "Rickity Tickity Tin," a song

loosely about

matricide, fratricide, and just about any other -cides you can come

up with

(and which, again not coincidentally, has fire as one of its themes)

has a

creepy, almost waltz/march-like quality to it, a melodic mood which

captures

the specific deliberateness of the tune's main character. And "Isn't

Lonely

Lovely" starts out with a mournful piano line that continues with a

steady

deliberateness throughout the song, and is likely to end up being

mentioned

in more than a handful of reviews. Bittersweet and aching, "Isn't

Lonely

Lovely" portrays, as well as I've heard in quite some time, the

feeling that

washes over you when you realize that life can be so wonderful,

but that to feel the fullness of life, it will be painful as well. "Isn't

lonely lovely," Manning sings, "If you want it," the notion being that

to lose yourself in love, sometimes you will find yourself on the

other side all alone. As in "The Arsonist Story," Manning uses a

muted trumpet to wonderful effect -- a line here, a line there and

somehow it all comes together just right.

And then, before you have time to recover, comes the urgency of

"That Kid," a full-throttled song, once again about loneliness

("Everybody wants to be loved," the chorus intones, in what could

be a theme for the album).

Manning shuns publicity. You're not going to see her on the cover

of Details anytime soon. And, since she's able to continue

to make the music she loves, and make it under the conditions she

wants, it's hard to argue for anything more. But after listening to an

album as good as 1212 and then checking out this week's

Top 40, it's hard not to feel that Manning isn't

quite getting the recognition she deserves.

But she wouldn't have it any other way. After all, isn't lonely

lovely?