Sharps & flats

The New York City duo Mannix crafts timeless power pop driven by sad songs that sound happy.

Published July 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Once upon a time, pop radio was just that, the home of all forms of popular music. Stations would play whatever was in the Top 40, be it soul, country, folk, soft rock, rock, spoken word, even polka. It was during that era, which peaked in the mid-1960s, that conductor Leonard Bernstein made his famous comments about how the vast majority of every style of music was disposable. The listener, he said, should not merely find one genre and stick with it, but rather seek out the tiny minority of good music in each genre.

Mannix takes those two attitudes and applies them to modern pop. The New York City duo's debut album, "Pretty Strange," is a bundle of ear candy from the word go. Its 15 genre-crossing songs hold in common superb melodies, heart-on-sleeve vocals, evocative lyrics and the kind of intimate, acoustic guitar-based arrangements traditionally favored by song-oriented artists, from early Nilsson to Marshall Crenshaw.

The leader of Mannix was born with an engaging singing voice and a memorable last name. Much later, toward the end of the '80s, Joe Mannix found partner Chris Peck, who is one of those rare creations -- a solid drummer who sings like an angel. By the time Mannix made "Pretty Strange," the pair had rounded up a variety of session players to give the album a full-band sound.

It's difficult to describe what makes Mannix, the band, special. Heard individually, the tracks on "Pretty Strange" don't sound more unusual or innovative than those of other underground pop artists. Together, however, they have a deep, intricate and conceptual feel that makes the whole album greater than the sum of its parts. Some of the charm is Joe Mannix's predilection for sad songs that sound happy.

"I'm sick of watching the others pass us by while we crawl," he sings about a relationship falling apart in the chorus of "No Longer Angry." At the same time, the song's insistent melody and tastefully crunchy guitars recall Paul McCartney and Wings, a group not exactly known for its cynicism.

If "Pretty Strange" has a weak point, it's the production, which errs on the side of subtlety. The instrumental balance is static and each song essentially has the same mix, making it sound not so much like a studio album as a live show in a coffeehouse with noise restrictions. Which, in fact, is the sort of place Mannix -- still a relative unknown, even in New York -- can normally be found live.

But Joe Mannix's unusually strong talent for original, stand-alone melodies raises "Pretty Strange" above most of the other albums that have sprung from this decade's power-pop revival. Wistful, evocative songs like "Time Travel" and "Sweet Sevillian Song," with their classic structure, universal lyrics and instantly memorable tunes, would fit right in with Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart and other Tin Pan Alley greats. That's another way of saying that Mannix is timeless, not timely. Then again, Bernstein's equation never implied that good music had anything to do with currency.

By Dawn Eden

Dawn Eden is a New York writer and music critic.


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