Barbara manning has such a gorgeous voice -- cool as a popsicle, transparent as a whisper of chiffon -- that her general creepiness might throw you for a loop. She sounds like such a nice girl -- would it kill her to try a sweet, simple love song now and then? But anyone who's familiar with Manning's two previous solo albums, or her work with her band S.F. Seals, knows that her greatest charm is her ability to make even the creepiest ballad sound something like a sweet, simple love song. She has a way of adding weight and heft to the stark beauty of her voice by giving us multiple layers of meaning to swim through. And unlike gloomsters like Nick Cave, Manning doesn't distance herself from the misery of the characters in her songs -- she collapses that distance, moving right in like a zoom lens to show us what makes these people tick.
The centerpiece of her new solo LP "1212" is a song cycle about an arsonist that switches from the point of view of a young firebug to that of his numbed, befuddled mother and back again, finally ending with the kid's suicide. It's a miserable subject for a 19-minute chunk of any record, but by its end, Manning's drawn you so deep into the story that you'd never dream of flinching from it.
"The best thing you could do is not come to my rescue," she sings on "Trapped and Drowning," the last song of the cycle. The melody floats along on a shimmering, buzzing bed of guitars, like Ophelia on her barge; toward the end, tentative trumpet trills expand into broad ruffles of sound, like a magician's paper flowers that bloom right in front of your eyes. Compassion seeps through the cracks in "Trapped and Drowning," though Manning never lets it go soft.
Supported by drummer Joey Burns and bassist John Convertino (both from Tucson's Calexico), Manning covers lots of troubled territory on "1212," including a reading of Richard Thompson's "End of the Rainbow" ("There's nothing at the end of the rainbow/There's nothing to grow up for anymore") that's as sorrowful as a snowdrift, and a grim, only mildly comical cover of Tom Lehrer's "Rickity Tikity Tin," in which a young girl murders her whole family one by one. The arrangements are simple and inventive, matching accordion, mariachi trumpets and lots of strings with surefooted drumming and hazy, mournful guitars.
Of the original numbers here, the ballad "Isn't Lonely Lovely?" is the standout. "Your number's forgotten, nobody calls/Isn't lonely lovely? ... It's a fine life, really," Manning sings, gently but not dispassionately, as if she hasn't yet decided whether it's more fun to sink into despair or groove on it. "You wanted to be alone, now you
are," she continues, her words set against a majestic, echoing landscape, like a picture postcard scrawled tentatively with the words "Wish you were here." Misery loves company -- and on "1212," in her own inimitable way, all Manning's asking for is a good cuddle.