It's pronounced MAN-YOU-OKAY. It's beautiful, weird, intense, and is out to break your heart. It's Indie music for grown-ups. Got it?"
Manuok is the solo moniker of Scott Mercado, who devotes most of his time to Via Satellite, the San Diego-based band that has recently released its excellent debut, Cities are Temples. Somehow, Mercado also found time to write and record his own superb debut album at the same time, and it's as innovative and fresh as his work with Via Satellite.
Manuok clocks in at a mere twenty-six minutes, although Mercado packs more surprises in the span of half an hour than most albums twice or three times its length. The album works as a fine companion piece to his work with Via Satellite, and offers a somewhat more experimental side to Mercado than is evident on Cities Are Temples. That's not to say that it's all film music and abstract found sounds, however.
In addition to some inventive, almost dirge-like tracks like instrumental opener "Torrance" and the industrial-meets-boss nova feel of "Randb", Mercado has penned some perfect pop gems like the head-bobbing "Titleless" and the Lennonesque "Flowers for Algernon", which has a rather dissonant start, becomes a melody the Beatles could have written, and ends up as a two-step country number. All in the space of three minutes and thirteen seconds.
I have made the complaint in print a few times recently that today's indie artists seem too hell-bent on repeating the past, and that the retro-music of the past few years has seemingly made alternative music as bland and monotonous as the mainstream charts. With someone like Mercado, on the other hand, you have an artist who is willing to totally explore himself to come up with something that is completely his own. It's exciting music to listen to, and I found an immediate connection to it. This album is moving in a complicated way, and there's no easy or direct way to get it pegged down. It's very much like getting a first impression of a person; however right it may be initially, there's so much more that unravels over time that it constantly changes your interpretation of it. It's in this same fashion that Manuok should be approached.
Mercado has been known to get so emotionally moved while performing that he begins to cry, and this devotion and passion to what he does is quite evident on Manuok's ten songs. While he's been described as an eccentric personality and a workaholic (Mercado played all the instruments on Manuok and in addition to his musical work with Via Satellite, he also designs and manages websites for, among others, the Album Leaf), Mercado strikes me as an artist who is just driven to create things.
A former Lit major, Mercado is quite deft at turning a meaningful phrase, but his music is so strong that he could probably sing his grocery list and still move you. Lyrically, his compositions inhabit a dark corner of the psyche, and there's a palatable sadness that permeates most of the album. I keep thinking of the Ricky Fitts character in American Beauty, who says that sometimes there's so much beauty in the world that it's like he just can't take it, and feels as if his heart will just explode. I get the same sense from Mercado's songs. I think he feels things so deeply that they're just born with a natural heaviness of heart. He's not wallowing in it, just communicating it. Manuok has an orchestral feel, a majestic-ness that is clearly operating on another level without ever becoming pompous or bombastic. Closing track "All Said and Done" is quite simply one of the most gorgeous tracks ever to close an album. With its jazz-like chord structure and arrangement, it leaves you feeling as if you floated into another reality. This is indie music for grown-ups, and it's out to break your heart. If it doesn't explode first.