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.