Phil Manley: Life Coach
Thrill Jockey

Appearances can, of course, be misleading. On the cover of Life Coach, Phil Manley looks for all the world like a guitarist from Jimmy Buffet's back-up band. But, needless to say, the debut solo album by the Trans Am founding member includes no cover version of “Margaritaville” or anything remotely like it. Instead, Life Coach is in some measure designed to be an homage to German recording engineer Connie Plank and the recordings he made with Neu!, Kraftwerk, Harmonia, Cluster, and Popol Vuh. That it does pay tribute to the German krautrock sound of the mid-‘70s is evident immediately when the Autobahn-like “FT2 Theme” rolls down its own highway in a free-spirited blend of motorik drum machine beats and jubilant synthesizer melodies. The album extends its stylistic purview beyond one style only, however, in its nine instrumental songs, all of which were composed, performed, and recorded entirely by Manley between 2003 and 2010.

“Work It Out” finds Manley in No Pussyfooting territory with the focus firmly on electric guitars working themselves into multi-layered formation, sometimes merging and other times offsetting themselves from one another. “Night Visions” likewise brings Manley's Fripp-like guitar attack into a pulsating field of uptempo guitar patterns. Contrast emerges in the form of “Forest Opening Theme,” a brooding synth-ambient setting that evokes Popol Vuh and Cluster, and two acoustic folk settings, “Lawrence, KS” and “Make Good Choices,” that nicely spotlight Manley's finger-picking technique. The closing title track brings the album full circle by revisiting the drum machine and synthesizer pulsations of “FT2 Theme,” but this time slowing the pace to an easy-going cruise.

Gear used for the recording included a Fender Telecaster electric guitar, Gibson Country-Western steel string acoustic guitar, vintage synthesizers (a Roland Juno 60, Arp String Ensemble, Mini Moog, and Roland GR-20 guitar synth, among others), and a Roland TR-606 Drumatix drum machine. One of the recording's most appealing qualities is that, just like the ‘70s recordings to which it pays tribute, it's concise, with the album weighing in at a lean thirty-six minutes. The optimal format for Manley's recording would be twelve-inch vinyl, with five songs on the first and four on the second. The presentation of the release suggest as much too, as the songs are shown in two groupings on the back cover, and the CD itself is designed to resemble an old-fashioned vinyl label.

January 2011