Harry Manx: Mantras for Madmen

[19 March 2006]

By Jason MacNeil

Harry Manx is an eclectic guitarist who would fall somewhere between the folksy, innovative nature of Richard Thompson and the relaxing but experimental side of Adrian Legg. On a recent album, Manx worked with Kevin Breit for a very pleasing result that melded different styles and influences into one joyful, appealing disc. Now, Manx’s debut album with a new label, and his sixth album in six years, has a fuller, fleshed-out style behind it. Manx is still front and center, but this time he has some help with some vocalists and accompanying musicians. While he could still go it alone musically and shine, the supporting cast tends to do wonders for this guitar “madman.”

Manx sets the tone with a very relaxing, assuring folk-pop track entitled “Where Fools Die”. Rootsy but not too alt.country or Americana, Manx’s rather raspy vocal is at times accompanied by harmonica and harmony vocals. It’s a great selection for an opener that draws you in immediately, not pushing the envelope a lot but just enough to keep you interested. But Manx definitely pushes not just the envelope but the whole frickin’ desk with the ensuing track, an innovative reworking of “San Diego-Tijuana”. Here the cover of J.J. Cale’s “Marrakesh Tijuana” as there is a distinct Middle Eastern influence here with its drums and tamboura used. It could be a stretch for many artists, but Manx delivers the song as easily as one could hope for. One immediately might think of George Harrison talking to Ravi while ingesting some herb during the opening notes. However, Manx takes you away from that feeling from the most part. And he is quite soothing on the ensuing “The Point of Purchase” that sounds like it could have come from somewhere just north of a Louisiana swamp—dark and somewhat mysterious. Here Manx sounds like he’s right in his elements with some subtle but powerful licks sprinkled throughout the tune thanks to the electric lap steel guitar he uses.

Perhaps the first highlight for Manx is the downplayed roots style he uses on “Never the Twain”, with just his earthy vocals and equally earthy acoustic guitar licks. It doesn’t have a campfire feeling but is quite relaxing in that Mark Knopfler kind of way. All he needs with this track is the surprise guest duet with Allison Krauss. There is also some great picking during the bridge on mandolin from John Reischman. But as song #4 is the first highlight, the first lowlight comes with the unfocused and somewhat lackadaisical “A Single Spark”. Again it returns to the slight Middle Eastern feeling but then just plods along down a dusty bluesy road that is in no real hurry to finish up. J.J. Cale might have more success with this tune, but here Manx is lacking something. “Your Sweet Name” is a marked improvement but the little Middle Eastern flourishes or accents don’t seem to add anything to the song. It seems they’re audible just for the sake of being placed on top of the rather catchy little folksy romp.

The album contains two instrumentals in the second half, leading with “Afghani Raga”, which includes the tamboura and Mohan Veena. It’s as if Ennio Morricone was composing this track while swigging water from his canteen in the middle of the Sahara. Think of him scoring a Sarfari Western instead of a Spaghetti Western and you should get the gist of the tune. The later instrumental, which is also the album closer, doesn’t sway too far from the former’s blueprint, although this song, entitled “Talkin’ Turban” is far more deliberate.

The majority of the proverbial Side B has some nice nuggets, including the soft and rather reflective “It Makes No Difference” that sounds like a Southern-ized tune that Jackson Browne or James Taylor might have conjured up. Yet “the” track that will draw you in and bring you around is “It Takes a Tear”, which has a subtle sway but is fleshed out perfectly with the strong pipes of Emily Braden that aren’t quite blues or folk but just seem to fit the track to a tee. Manx loves his different influences and genres, but at times his well-crafted material seems to be diminished slightly by those subtle but at times needless additions.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/harry_manx_mantras_for_madmen/