Independent release, 2011
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/01/2011
Having done this gig for as long as I have, you can imagine that the demands for a music reviewer's time can be great, especially from artists looking for that one review to help them make their big break. But, between a full-time job, a side gig DJ'ing, three kids, a wife, and the constant allure of trying to break the high score of "Pac-Man" at the local 7-Eleven, I don't always have the time I'd like to listen to such artists these days.
Devil's Red, the debut effort from Jesse Manley, has been floating around my desk for several weeks, when I finally was curious enough to pop it into the CD player of my car and give it a spin or two. In the end, it turned out to be worth the time and effort - and while Manley's style of music might not appeal to everyone, fans of folk or Americana will find much to enjoy on this one.
Without a bio in front of me, I would have bet that multi-instrumentalist Manley was from Australia, the lilt of his voice reminding me of a higher-pitched Peter Garrett at times. Good thing I'm not a betting man, as Manley is a Montana native now based in Colorado. But then, his story-telling style of songwriting should have been my first clue that I was wrong.
To call Manley's style of music folk is not entirely accurate. If anything, his minimalist approach to instrumentation - usually starting with banjo and building only when it's absolutely called for in the song - and story-telling style reminds me more of Americana, akin to people like Marty Robbins, Dave Van Ronk or early Bob Dylan. Yet with such modest instrumentation and vocal style, it packs a serious punch that makes the listener sit up and take interest.
Perhaps the strongest of these songs is "Vagabond Hill," a perfect example of how a song could, once upon a time, truly tell a story and even have a moral of sorts. A tale of unrequieted love and longing for what could have been, complete with a sub-plot of jealousy, Manley and his partner in crime Dave Willey craft a track that ends far, far too soon. (Have to admit that I was disappointed with the ending of the story - but that's more of a personal preference, not a knock on the song itself.)
Throughout its ten songs, Devil's Red challenges the listener to move away from the concept of pre-packaged three-minute pop songs and actually wrap their ears around songs that challenge you to listen and to think. From the opening banjo licks on the lead-off track "Someday," you know that this isn't going to be a typical listening experience - and, in all honesty, that's a good thing in this example.
But to simply call this disc folk music - or even a more inclusive label like Americana - is technically incorrect. The more I listen to this disc as a whole, the more I'm convinced that Manley's music really can't be easily classified or pigeon-holed. Just because a song like "Someday" is heavy on use of the banjo, a track like "Find Your Way Home" (featuring violin work by Anthony Salvo) is more of a lilting ballad that defies easily classification. Just when you think you can nail down Manley's style, he changes it on you, albeit subtly.
Manley is able to keep the listener interested throughout the disc (which is a surprisingly quick listen); songs like "Find Your Way Home," "Musical Chairs" and "Oh Lord" all are pleasing to the ear, even if Manley's accented singing sometimes gets to be a little tiring on the ears. Otherwise, it's an entertaining ride through a menagerie of acoustic instruments - I personally loved the mandolin touches I heard, though I have to wonder what the "Baldwin Fun Machine" is.
Devil's Red probably won't make it to the top of the Billboard charts, and labels won't see how an artist like Manley could sell 10 million copies right out of the box. But for those who are more open-minded to their musical experiences and who enjoy songs that hearken back to earlier days of folk rock (think pre-Peter, Paul & Mary), you're going to be in for a treat.