Roger Joseph Manning Jr. – Catnip Dynamite

Roger Joseph Manning Jr. - Catnip DynamiteWhen I listened to former Jellyfish frontman Roger Manning’s debut solo album, Land Of Pure Imagination, a couple of years ago, I was impressed with his amazing studio technique, his harmonies and performances, but not so much with the songs. I’d almost swear the man read my mind, because his new album puts those worries to rest with a solid string of songs that are just freaking fantastic. Fans of melodic, hooky ’70s power pop with great harmony will find this album’s title incredibly appropriate. To narrow it down a bit – if you like Cheap Trick, you’re going to love this.

The album opens up with “The Quickening”, an anthemic ’70s style rocker with a foot-stomping Gary Glitter-style beat. As cheerful as it is musically, its lyrics bemoan the impatience of youth and the unstoppable, unslowable roller coaster ride of growing older. The vocal harmonies are an awesome wall of sound here, and those who like this song will also get a kick out of “Down In Front” a couple of tracks later. In between is the deceptively cheerful “Love’s Never Half As Good”, a pleasant song that calls to mind a certain breed of well-written, workmanlike ’70s ballad. The description might also apply to “My Girl”, though I find myself liking “Love’s Never Half As Good” much better.

“Imaginary Friend” gets things back onto a rockier course, with a great sonic throwback to the late ’60s/early ’70s rhythm-section-plus-electric-organ sound. “Haunted Henry” is a bit of a ghost of the Jellyfish sound, a catchy story song with a macabre twist – along with Land Of Pure Imagination‘s “Too Late For Us Now”, this is probably the most Jellyfish-esque thing Manning has done since Jellyfish. “Tinseltown” is a nice story song which cautions against seeking fame and fortune at too high a price. As the lyrics chronicle the small-town beginnings of its cast of characters, some very nice pedal steel guitar work starts to creep in, giving the song a vaguely country flavor, though not so much as to completely distract.

“The Turnstile At Heaven’s Gate” features another solid wall of vocal harmony, as well as a brief break for marching band to keep things lively. “Survival Machine” is an epic, nearly eight minutes in length, which is really two songs in one; it’s the kind of anti-war piece that wasn’t at all uncommon in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but seems to be in surprisingly short supply today. The first half of the song is heavy on heavy apocalyptic organ riffs, while the second half gives way to a more bittersweet tone. “Living In End Times” is a sharp-tongued, fast-rocking commentary on folks whose fascination with the Bible seems to begin and end with Revelations. Name-checking everything from “The Late, Great Planet Earth” to “Left Behind”, this is easily the heaviest song – instrumentally speaking – on the whole album, in service of a message that I really wish more people would pick up on.

“Drive Thru Girl” starts out with a mock “live show” intro, and, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, proceeds to turn an amazing number of fast food sales slogans into double entendres set to a cheesy music hall-style accompaniment. This song may not sit well with those who are still waiting for some or all of the former members of Jellyfish to revisit the sound of that group’s glory days, but I found it amusing enough. The album closes with “American Affluenza”, a token anti-consumerist song whose only real disappointment is that the lyrics don’t have much to say. (By contrast, Ben Folds’ “All U Can Eat” is a much more interesting experience lyrically; I also admit to certain built-in skepticism about a song extolling the foibles of American consumer culture when that song has been earmarked as a Japan-exclusive track.)

3 out of 4Catnip Dynamite is a great bunch of songs, but in places it lets go of enough of its energy that it’s hard to get through in a single sitting. Still, for anyone who, like myself, grew up with the ’70s sound reverberating from their radios (back when it was the ’70s and people actually listened to radio because decent songs could be found there), this album more than lives up to its name.

Order this CD

  1. The Quickening (5:06)
  2. Love’s Never Half As Good (5:36)
  3. Down In Front (5:23)
  4. My Girl (4:09)
  5. Imaginary Friend (5:07)
  6. Haunted Henry (4:49)
  7. Tinsel Town (5:23)
  8. The Turnstile At Heaven’s Gate (4:40)
  9. Survival Machine (7:54)
  10. Living In End Times (5:09)
  11. Drive Thru Girl (5:15)
  12. American Affluenza (3:30)

Released by: Phantom
Release date: 2008
Total running time: 62:01

Roger Joseph Manning Jr. – The Land Of Pure Imagination

Roger Manning - The Land Of Pure ImaginationFormerly of early 90s power pop powerhouse Jellyfish, Roger Manning is reinventing the 1970s with this solo project, on which he plays and sings everything (except for a trumpet on one song). Fans of 70s music will probably find at several gems to love here, though those expecting to hear the second coming of Jellyfish may be left scratching their heads in places.

In its brief, two-album heyday, Jellyfish mined almost the entire gamut of well-produced, well-written 70s pop music, with stylistic nods to Queen, Supertramp, ELO and numberous other 70s supergroups, and with Manning in the driver’s seat, Jellyfish still managed to make all of those elements the band’s own unique sound. Manning’s chief inspiration is still the 1970s, though here he seems to be absorbing influences from everyone from Mac Davis to Carole King. Fan of Jellyfish’s decidedly rocked-out sound may find it hard to square these elements with what they were expecting. That doesn’t make Imagination a bad album; but for folks like me who were going “Ooh! Roger Manning! Jellyfish!” like I was may require a little bit of an adjustment period while their expectations hash it out with the reality of what’s on the CD.

What’s on the CD is good stuff, though. The title track and especially “Too Late For Us Now,” which I count as my favorite song on the whole album, wouldn’t have been at all out of place in the Jellyfish set list. “Creeple People” and “The Loser” come close to this category as well. “Sandman” hearkens back to the gorgeous a cappella vocal harmonies of Jellyfish’s “Hush,” and “You Were Right” recalls some of that group’s more low-key numbers (i.e. “Calling Sarah”). Manning’s production and vocals are impeccable – even if you don’t care for a given song, it’s almost impossible not to admire his one-man-band abilities here.

But all of that’s pretty cautious praise. There are a couple of songs that I tend to skip – “Wish It Would Rain” resurrects a particularly vapid flavor of 70s pop that was already overused 30 years ago. And while on a conceptual level I like the ornate intricacy of “Appleby,” I just can’t bring myself to really like the song, and I can’t even put a finger on why. The odd thing is that “Appleby” is one of three tracks that were added to the album, to replace three tracks deleted from its Japanese release under the title of Solid State Warrior. The three deleted tracks were made available as a very-limited-edition bonus CD (~200 copies) during 3 out of 4the album’s launch, and all three of the omitted songs are stunners – why anyone thought they didn’t make the cut for consumption in the English-speaking world is a mystery. (“In The Name Of Romance” and “Pray For The Many” are the other two add-on tracks, the latter being the best of the three.)

Overall, it’s a good album, though it’d be an even better album without the tinkering that went on as it crossed the Pacific.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. The Land Of Pure Imagination (6:01)
  2. Too Late For Us Now (3:23)
  3. Wish It Would Rain (5:42)
  4. The Loser (3:36)
  5. Sandman (3:37)
  6. Pray For The Many (3:02)
  7. Dragonfly (5:19)
  8. Creeple People (5:31)
  9. In The Name Of Romance (5:26)
  10. You Were Right (5:43)
  11. Appleby (5:30)
    Not Lame bonus disc (Solid State Warrior songs omitted in U.S. release):

  1. What You Don’t Know About The Girl (2:49)
  2. Sleep Children (2:47)
  3. ‘Til We Meet Again (3:44)

Released by: Cordless Recordings
Release date: 2006 (originally released in Japan as Solid State Warrior in 2005)
Total running time: 52:55