Chessie: Manifest

Soundtracks to the exhilarating speed and momentum of transcontinental locomotion.



Label: Plug Research
US Release Date: 2008-02-05
UK Release Date: Available as import

Manifest might be the Chessie pop album. I mean, the 2004 Camping collaboration with German bossa nova singer Henning Fritzenwalder could almost correctly be considered the Chessie pop album, consisting, as it did, entirely of actual pop songs with lyrics and choruses and all those obvious pop music cues. But that was clearly a side project, and a bit of an anomaly anyway. Seriously, bossa nova? The Chessie moniker, on the other hand, has long been guitarist Stephen Gardner's (originally solo, since 2000 with childhood friend Ben Bailes) showcase for deeply atmospheric sound-paintings on the exclusive subject of train travel. It's a pretty specific niche, and one that Gardner and Bailes have a solid claim to by this, their fourth album. And despite the continuing lack of voice or words, it's still the closest thing to a pop album we're likely to hear from a duo perhaps most reasonably described as "concept drone."

But this is the pop album, so those drone tendencies, vast and lovely and seemingly bottomless on 2001 masterpiece Overnight, have been reigned in a bit since. Gardner's guitar, long known for being treated and manipulated into near-insensibility (think Fennesz, think Electric Company), actually sounds like a guitar here, more than ever, at least. The odd song out on Overnight was the surprisingly propulsive -- perhaps even jaunty -- "Daylight". I mean, clearly a song called "Daylight", on an album called Overnight, was going to hit a somewhat contrasting vibe, brighter, and yes, sunnier. Catchier, for sure. That's more or less the vibe Chessie seem to have taken as the starting point for Manifest.

What this gives us, sound-wise, is an album with a surprising emphasis on brisk guitar hooks, buzzing keyboard accompaniments, and steady-rolling steam-driven percussion. Soundtracks to the exhilarating speed and momentum of transcontinental locomotion, rather than Overnight's pensive, moon-bathed solitude. Roaring through and over mountains, rather than staring at them over silent, plain-spanned distances. Maybe even out on the caboose platform, hair in wind-blasted disarray, waving as a station roars past, instead of peering intently from a darkened car through a dim, narrow rectangle of window glass, two fingers raised to trace along the rivets of the window frame.

Of course, it's still a Chessie album, so the tracks still gleam with broken guitar shimmers and pops and little distorted breaths of melody, and a great deal of attention is still paid to minute sound design and detailing. But even when the album gets sparser and more drone-oriented in its second act, it's still miles of metal rail apart from, say, the bleakly wind-wiped expanses of a past great like "Northern Maine Junction". Rather, the album opens up with a semi-distorted digital processing study like the most forcibly immediate Fennesz pieces, only with perhaps clearer melodic development. From there, on to Manifest's answer to "Daylight": the rapid guitar chug of "Intercity", which seems to take every tendency of the older track and ramp it up, develop it further. The catchiness of "Daylight" was in the mesmerizing repetition of its pulsing guitar lines; with "Intercity" we get a constant, natural progression of such themes, each building from the last and pushing the song forward. The track is practically all hook. "Long Bridge" follows, its clean, regular strumming par for the course here, where it would have seemed an uptempo peak on the past discs. Likewise "High Line". "Alone Together" makes a shift back towards the quietly textural, but it's still "alone together" and warmed by sparkling glockenspiel notes. Most of Overnight is better summarized as just "Alone".

But Overnight wasn't simply quieter and more nocturnally spacious. Its murky window-glass didn't just look out on rolling hills and darkened skies, but reflected back something of the human faces of its creators as they stared through. There was always something affecting in its empty spaces and simple, barely-there melodies. The arrangements on Manifest, however consistently more developed, quicker progressing, and better filled out, seem to have lost some of that greater depth and restraint of the past. It's the semi-paradoxical album where technical improvements in almost every regard haven't necessarily made for a stronger work, taken as a whole. But at the same time, if there really is a step back here, it's a subtle one that won't be immediately evident, or perhaps even important, to many listeners. In fact, Manifest's heightened pop-sense probably has a rather greater chance at pulling in new listeners than any prior Chessie work. It's just not quite Overnight, but then, few albums are.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

It's Chris Stapleton's grasp on the constant joys in life despite the troubles that makes his music essential and enduring.

This was a year in which it seemed everybody wanted to put out more than one album. From Future's back-to-back releases to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard's four (maybe five coming?) LPs, hyperactivity has been a definite key to success in our hyper-saturated music market. And although this marketing trick has seen most of its use in the hip-hop market, Chris Stapleton is here to show that it's just as effective in the country scene as anywhere. Just seven months removed from From A Room, Vol. 1, the ragged-bearded outlaw bard is back with another 32 minutes of heartbreak, folk storytelling, and of course, staggering vocal chops.

Keep reading... Show less

Nowhere else in the merging of modern cinema and film criticism can you find such a strangely symbiotic relationship.

Both Roger Ebert and Werner Herzog are such idiosyncratically iconoclastic giants in their respective fields that it's very likely the world will never see an adequate replacement for each. While Herzog continues to follow his own singular artistic vision, the world has since lost the wit and wisdom of Ebert, arguably the last of the truly great film critics and custodians of the sacred medium. Between the two it becomes clear that there was an unremarked upon but nonetheless present mutual respect and admiration. Though here it tends to come off far more one-sided, save the opening transcript of a workshop held at the Facets Multimedia Center in Chicago in 1979 hosted by Ebert and featured Herzog and a handful of later interviews, there still comes through in their dialogue a meeting of like-minded, thoughtful individuals with a great love for the cinema and exploring the extremes of human creativity.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.