Music critics (this writer included) have long sought after the record that would, once and for all, blend perfectly the sterile elements of synthesized music with the organic tones of traditional, analog sounds. Kid A comes to mind, as does the collective duh of this review’s readership upon scanning that line, though even that album hasn’t hushed the desires of musicians and audiences alike to continue to explore the surprisingly wide territory that such broad genre-blending can produce. In his work in Trans Am and the Fucking Champs, Phil Manley has already put his own signature on this particular type of sonic experimentation, whether in the minimalist rhythms of the former or the instrumental prog tendencies of the latter. Now, signed to art-rock flagship Thrill Jockey, Manley is releasing Life Coach, an album all his own creation, and one that both continues and updates his past compositional interests.
In the press release accompanying the album, Manley declares that his intention in writing Life Coach was to pay his respects to “Klangfarben,” which your uncle Herschel can tell you means “sound colors” and describes the atmospheric, free-form music associated to varying extents with krautrock heavy-hitters such as Kraftwerk, Neu!, Popul Vuh, and Cluster. The connection between those bands’ late ‘70s output, aside from a shared national heritage, was recording engineer Connie Plank, progenitor—in Manley’s view—of the kind of “sound colors” that inspire him as a musician today. As you might guess, Life Coach is a mostly instrumental album, equal parts ambient (Brian Eno had his hands in all that Klangfarben, too, as was his inviolable wont) and rock. Most of the tracks find their center in Manley’s guitar, and most are backed by synthesizers and drum machines. In accordance to electro-analog Frankenstein tradition, Manley played all the synths live, eschewing sequencers, and tried to equalize and compress the mix as little as possible in order to retain the warmth of its analog quality.
All of this goes to say that Life Coach is a very intellectualized album, and interestingly so. Manley has done his homework, has internalized his influences and heroes. He’s already spent years proving himself a capable and captivating musician, and he hardly needs Life Coach to bolster him in the esteem of those who have already been paying attention. That, in a way, is fortunate. It can be difficult to criticize an album—or any work of art—born out of experimentation without sounding as if you are simply and regrettably outside of the borders of its intellectual register. Still, Life Coach frequently sounds half-formed, stuck in some initial stage of genesis. Yes, to an extent, that is the point. This is not strictly pop songwriting, and a focus on sonic texture—sound colors—does not always lead to immediately gripping material. Understood. Perhaps, too, it’s unfair to compare Manley’s work to that of his idols, but then he’s made the comparison apparent for us, already.
As a work of homage, Life Coach, does its job admirably. Those looking to find touchstones will be able to do so readily—the relentlessly efficient Kraftwerk-inspired beat of “FT2 Theme”, the dark and satisfyingly kraut tone of “Commercial Potential”, the icy synthesized landscape of the Eno-ist “Night Visions”. For his fellow aficionados, Manley’s work here should be consistently stimulating and worthy of plenty of knowing grins. For the casual listener, the highlights will be slimmer. Those three previously mentioned tracks are likely Life Coach’s strongest offerings, “Commercial Potential” in particular living up to its titular promise of abundant atmosphere. On the other hand, the acoustic meanderings of “Lawrence, KS” and “Make Good Choices” recede from memory almost as soon as they come to an end. Life Coach is worth a listen, but its best use may prove to be the excuse to revisit the records that it quotes and the bands that made its existence possible in the first place.