Michael Manning: Public
Ai Records

Michael Manning's first full-length Public is a more chilled affair compared to the more dance-based releases in the Ai catalogue but it's hardly less satisfying for being so. The follow-up to his EP The Lost Aberrant Dragonfly, Public encompasses a diverse spectrum of styles ranging from ambient to hip-hop but pursues introspection above all else. At first, that doesn't appear to be the case, given the more aggressive style of initial tracks like “Sound Check” and “The Street Television.” The former merges crisp hip-hop beats with blurry voices, percussive clatter, and the soft cascades of a female vocalist, while the brooding Arabian ambiance of the latter, coloured by bell percussion, tablas, flutes, and strings, suggests a visit to a Moroccan opium den. But “Walk in the Park,” a delicate ballad that pairs Helen Lord's breezy vocals with Manning's Rhodes piano playing, signals a move into more placid territory. The beatific “Save,” the orchestral “Nothing Left to Shout About,” and the melancholy if oddly titled “Insect Potentiality” (Lord's alternately lush and swooping vocals help make it perhaps the album's loveliest song) reinforce the reflective, gentler mood. It doesn't stay there entirely, however, as demonstrated by the hip-hop-flavoured outing “Today” and the coda “Waiting for Closure.” Many of the fourteen tracks spread across the album's forty-five minutes are two-minute vignettes, though that's not a weakness as the songs cumulatively establish a strong impression.

The elegance of Manning's music belies his age (now nineteen, he was signed by Ai when just 17). Consider his restrained piano playing on the longest song, the rather hymnal “Cautionary Tale.” His minimal approach here reaps maximum rewards, especially when paired with phantom voices that drift in and out in drone-like manner. Like many a young composer, repetitive patterns in Manning's music suggest a Steve Reich influence (“Astral Poetry” and “Insect Potentiality”) though, in general, Manning forges a surprisingly mature personal style, making Public another impressive addition to the Ai discography.

July 2005