You should know
With singer-songwriter Barbara Manning, the sum is far greater than its parts
A few years ago, a musician friend was playing bass in a dive bar in North San Juan, a rickety mountain town uphill of Nevada City. It was one of those gigs that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, whether you are a performing musician or listener. The band ended its set frustrated and the audience breathed an audible sigh of relief, happy to return to whiskey and laughter.
After the show, a woman approached the bassist; she introduced herself as a fellow musician. She was a local, living up on the ridge with no electricity and no phone. Still frustrated, the bassist essentially ignored her, nodding while packing his gear.
For days, though, the woman’s name remained in his head. Barbara Manning. Where had he heard that name before? One dark time, on a whim, he opened up his copy of Spin Magazine’s Guide to Alternative Rock. There she was, her 1988 release Sometimes I Keep Scissors listed as one of the top 100 alternative rock albums of all time. He realized that he had just snubbed someone … important.
“Important” is the operative word when assessing Manning’s work. On first listen, the most striking facet is the relative musical simplicity of her songs. There is no four-octave vocal range here, no guitar heroics, no drum solos, no screaming and wailing, no crazy 7/4 time signatures, no overtly pretentious lyrical turns. By all evidence, Manning should be mediocre, another musician re-treading a punk/grunge trend that some would argue ended with a self-inflicted shotgun blast in April 1994.
The difference is that Manning is good. Really good. The kind of good that gets you named in the aforementioned Spin guide, Virgin’s Guide to Indie Rock and New Wave and Rolling Stone’s Women in Rock, the kind that nets you shows with Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo and gets you Calexico as a backing band.
Her 1988 CD foretold the beginnings of grunge without being grungy, reclaiming guitar-based music from the electronic morass and big-haired metal mayhem into which it had teetered. The songs are amazing—pop-influenced, but what bubblegum there is remains stuck firmly to the shoes of angry arsonists. One thinks of Nirvana’s brilliant, big-selling Nevermind—released three years after Manning’s solo debut. Or Sleater-Kinney’s incredible 2000 release All Hands On the Bad One.
Manning’s newest CD, You Should Know by Now, continues this trend. Backed by her band the Go Luckys!—twin brothers Flavio and Fabrizio Steinbach—Manning doles out a dizzying blend of lyrical songwriting and (mostly) distorted guitars. The result is outstanding.
One guesses You Should Know is mostly autobiographical, surprising only in comparison with her earlier work. Her 1997 release, 1212, for example, opens with a series of songs collectively called “The Arsonist’s Story”—a stunning, 19-minute fictional narrative of fire and redemption.
In contrast, the longest piece on You Should Know By Now clocks in at just over five minutes. Nonetheless, the songs here do form a kind of narrative, much of it circling the absurdity of human life and love. There’s also a sense of self-awareness here, of confidence even in the face of love and longing and loss. As Manning sings in “I Insist”: “Let’s make some time / We can share a glass, but the bottle is mine.” You want to stand and applaud.
Incidentally, the friend mentioned above had the opportunity to apologize to Manning after a recent show at the True Love Coffeehouse. “We played a terrible show once at a bar up in North San Juan,” he began. Manning interrupted by saying, “You guys weren’t terrible. You were good!”
Standing there in her simple dress, perhaps the kind your mother might wear, and her open smile, you might forget that you are talking with someone that Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore called one of San Francisco’s finest poets, a 30-something musical legend, someone … important.
But important she is. Even if her kindness lets you forget it.