Phil Manley – Life Coach (Thrill Jockey)

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Taking this album cover and title in stride, yes, there’s a tongue-in-cheek quality that wont surprise fans of Manley’s long-trucking Trans Am. (He’s also played with Oneida and the Fucking Champs.) But this solo debut is no joke. It firmly establishes Manley as both a painstaking craftsman and a singular voice as a producer. Again, no huge surprise, given Manley has recorded Arp, Mi Ami, Moon Duo, and Wooden Shjips over the years. Yet it’s refreshing just how crisp, controlled, lovely, and exploratory these self-produced instrumentals are.

A confessed tribute to the classic engineering work of Connie Plank (Neu!, Kraftwerk, Cluster, Popol Vuh), this album thrives on clarity and precision. Vintage instruments abound, including an enviable splay of synths, and the production eschews most any masking elements. The results unfold in several directions, beginning with the Trans Am-worthy opener “FT2 Theme” and its solemn guitar, rubbery pulse, and varying shades of retro-futuristic synths. Though slowed nearly to a drone, “Work It Out” also recalls Manley’s regular band in its high, harmonised guitar. Less expected is the steel-string acoustic heard on the hypnotic “Lawrence, KSÔ as well as “Make Good Choices”, where it’s layered to the point of frazzled intensity.

Also a slight departure is the synth ambience calmly emanating from “Forest Opening Theme”. That and other tracks recall the incidental music on a film soundtrack – think of what Yo La Tengo used to do for Hal Hartley movies. So go the spacious synths and roaming guitar of “Commercial Potential” and fleeting vocal harmonies of “Gay Bathers”, both lovely despite their piss-take names. The closing title track, also, is at once playful and serene. Much of the above comes together in the album’s centrepiece, the nine-minute “Night Visions”: entwined layers of bristling melody, with synth peeking in gradually. It’s ultimately an ambient track, but like everything here, Manley does it in his own glorious, idiosyncratic way.

Doug Wallen

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  1. this is a terrific sounding album but, really, it’s nothing more than manual gottsching / ashra temple being done crisply 30-40 years after the fact. the arp record he produced is better because al least it has some vague originality.