The Dark Shadow

Barbara Manning and the S.F. Seals find that Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows

Barbara Manning is standing in a public phone booth in Atlanta, outside a club where she and the S.F. Seals are scheduled to perform. Her nose feels like it's about to freeze off. She is groggy and road-ragged. "We slept in a trailer last night," she explains, "and were all kind of overwhelmed by the smell of Raid. But the person who put us up was real sweet, so that made up for it." Such proletarian cheeriness and an absence of pop-star pomp are Manning trademarks. She doesn't waste energy crying foul at an industry that puts Matador label-mate Liz Phair in sparkly dresses on MTV, while the Seals get toxified in a trailer park.

In 1988, years before the fanfare erupted over confessional rocker grrrls like Phair, P J Harvey, Juliana Hatfield, and Ani DiFranco, to name a few, San Francisco indie label Heyday released the brilliant Lately I Keep Scissors. It was Manning's first solo effort, borne out of the depression of kissing her first band -- 28th Day -- goodbye. In a deceptively bright wash of indie pop, Scissors hacks both Manning's interior life and her interpersonal relationships into disturbing, decontextualized bits. Her quiet rage is palpable, but never glaringly exhibitionistic, in the manner of Courtney Love, Trent Reznor, or Alanis Morissette; her ability to relay the complexity of the psychosexual soul in simple lyrical terms rivals that of Harvey. Definitely ahead of its time, Scissors was critically acclaimed but largely unheard outside a small indie circle. After another lineup, this one dubbed World of Pooh, Scissors was attached to Manning's second solo release, One Perfect Green Blanket.

The picturesque green baseball field pictured in the liner notes cannot quite cover up the worms and decay under its grassy blanket. Perfect's tracks are alternately frank and cagey, but always dark. Powered by Manning's no-frills vocals that soar above aggressive and quirky guitar lines, this pleasingly claustrophobic affair easily hooks the listener onto its sharply hewn barbs. Unfortunately, since the recent grunge fire sale, raw stylings arouse suspicion, though in 1992 it was still a brave new sound that prompted Rolling Stone to dub Manning one of the "New Faces of Rock."

Unwittingly, Manning's shears helped carve a niche that would soon be filled by a new generation of guerrilla girls still strumming in their dorm rooms. "I remember thinking there weren't a lot of role models at the time," Manning says of her early career. "I personally liked Kendra Smith [then of Opal]. But for a long time I didn't like female vocalists at all."

Still, Manning is far too modest to consider herself a prototype for anything. "I do wish there was more of a sense of music history in the indie-rock business," she says. "I'm certainly not the first woman to pour her heart out; women have been doing that for years and years. I'm just glad it never goes out of style."

Though the lineup changes slightly with each record, Manning has kept the S.F. Seals together long enough to release three records. Named after the defunct minor league baseball team that spawned Joe DiMaggio (Manning, a baseball freak, dubbed one EP The Baseball Trilogy), the Seals -- now Manning, guitarist Brently Pusser, drummer Melanie Clarin, and bassist Margaret Murray -- just released Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows (Matador). A follow-up to 1994's Nowhere, a bristly foray into experimental noise, Truth Walks in the calm after the storm: While Nowhere proffers a post-breakup void, Truth reveals the vague outlines of a reconstituted self.

"I love Nowhere because it encapsulated how I was feeling at the time," Manning says. "I had it on vinyl!" She laughs at the idea of carving feelings into the grooves of a record: "A year and a half went by, and the material I was writing and the way I was feeling was a lot more self-assured and not as full of grief and heartache. ... I feel lately I've had the confidence to write songs about whatever is on my mind and I don't have to be brokenhearted to do it."

Unsurprisingly, then, Truth is Manning's most mature work to date. Prancing in with a cover of the Pretty Things' "S.F. Sorrow" -- which sounds like it was lifted off an all-girl version of Sgt. Pepper's -- sorrow is born to the peal of trumpets and marching-band percussion. Then the Seals don their wet suits for the nautical odyssey "Ladies of the Sea," replete with warbled, psyche-rock guitar. Manning's little mermaids are no Disney product, though; just listen to the very first line: "White foam/ I know, it sounds like a sex hurricane."

On "Ipecac," Manning describes her lover as a plant that poisons her, relaying a sea siren crushed by the realization that she can't exist in the mortal world. Manning has always taken the role of the "other," shunned and forsaken. "Locked Out" captures that panicky, Joseph K.-like feeling of being barred from one's own house: "I get the feeling someone is inside/ But for some reason/ I'm not allowed." And in "Bold Letters," Manning asks her confidante to "Open up a little wider, so that her secrets can slide through the slot." Here and on "How Did You Know," the groove is so subdued and intimate that it recalls the sound of Nanci Griffith or even Joan Armatrading.

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