Barbara Manning made her name in the early ‘90s as one of the Bay Area’s finest musicians, garnering praise from fellow musicians and critics alike, landing on practically every magazine’s year-end lists, and probably selling very few records in the process. She’s often hailed as the prototype for Liz Phair’s indie sound, and while Phair might be more media savvy and an arguably stronger lyricist, Phair’s never attempted anything as ambitious as Manning’s epic “The Arsonist Story” from 1998’s 1212. Plus, Manning’s taste in cover material is impeccable (her take on Bevis Frond’s “Stain on the Sun” is definitive), and she’s been as rightly praised for her interpretive skills as she has for her own work. She seems able to fully immerse herself in a vibe, whether it’s from a song or a location (as evidenced by her work with the Clean, the Tall Dwarfs, the Verlaines and the 3D’s on 1999’s In New Zealand.
These days, she’s teamed up with identical twins Fabrizio and Flavio Steinbach to create her new power trio, the Go-Luckys! The result is a more energized, punk-pop informed version of Manning’s rock vision. From the opening chords of “Don’t Neglect Yourself”, Manning serves notice that this is a different sort of beast from her earlier work. Still, much of You Should Know by Now is in the classic Manning vein. “I Insist” is slow and moody, with spare interplay of strummed rhythm guitar and gentle lead notes, while “Time to B” is brisk and muscular. She even calls to mind Tom Waits and other avant-garde artists on songs like “Goof on the Roof” and “Rhombus”, which benefit from a spooky, musical saw underpinning. At times, the styles seem to struggle against one another. Plenty of songs bask in the new sound, while others would fit in comfortably with Manning’s older work; few, however, show a true melding of both schools.
That said, You Should Know by Now works fairly well as an album, and it’s often intriguing to see Manning going back to her punk roots (although her existing style was really only a sophisticated evolution from that background anyway). Still, her teaming with the Go-Luckys! at times feels like a step back to Square One. The songs here are easily as sincere and heartfelt as anything she’s ever written, but she had already perfected a hauntingly personal style (check out the aforementioned “The Arsonist Story” or “Lovers Leap” from In New Zealand) that goes largely untapped in favor of more streamlined rock. Still, you can’t begrudge an artist who throws herself into new settings as enthusiastically as Manning. In two or three years, who knows? She could be recording with a chamber orchestra or experimenting with industrial dance grooves—and pulling that off as effortlessly as she seems to click with the Go-Luckys!