Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Manishevitz. City Life (Jagjaguwar, 2003)

"Back in the day/ We were willing to play/ The songs that/ You'd never forget."

I have a special place in my heart for Manishevitz, mainly because they hail from my home state -- Virginia, that dear Old Dominion -- and are affiliated with one of my favorite labels, Bloomington by way of Richmond-based Jagjaguwar.

When I was in college, I was always proud of Jagjaguwar: it was a great label representing a region (my native central Virginia) that too often got overshadowed by the NoVA-DC axis, home to relative giants like Dischord and Teenbeat. Jagjaguwar signed bands from Charlottesville and Richmond, bands like Drunk and the Curious Digit that played in the basement at Tokyo Rose, bands someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere could boast of.

Adam Busch was a founding member of the Curious Digit before he broke off to mastermind Manishevitz, taking slow-core Americana outfit Drunk's guitarist Via Nuon with him. In Manishevitz, Busch set off to satisfy his eccentric psych-pop sensibilities, crafting fractured indie oddities underpinned by Nuon's fleet-fingered axemanship. Manishevitz specializes in out-there mini-symphonies, instruments layered one upon the other and injected with a strange and ear-catching euphoria. Not for everyone, no, but impossible to forget.

2003's City Life is Manishevitz's third LP, and as bizarre a statement as Busch has made. A lot of the weirdness comes from Busch's vocal delivery: an arch, fey, hilariously fakey pseudo-British hiccup which bounces from the speakers in bursts of artifice. But behind the voice is an advanced songwriting sensibility which shines through time and again on City Life's nine songs and nearly 36 minutes. This is essentially guitar pop, nicely art damaged and skewed, never trading experimentation for a good tune and never wearing out its welcome.

Stylistically, City Life's songs range from the more or less straightforward mid-fi rock of opener "Beretta," its chiming riffs, fuzzy solos, and bouncy hand clap beats setting the stage for a bright and shiny pop holiday, to the semi-drone of "Hate Ilene," which nearly abandons its charming sprawl of a melody shortly after the minute mark, content instead to float into the ether on waves of gentle chords, unspooling single note sustains, and languid drum fills. It's Spiritualized on a budget, and it's far more appetizing than that sounds.

The rollicking barrelhouse piano adds a tuneful touch to the album's title track, as Nuon distinguishes himself with an endless series of abstract-yet-unannoying guitar passages and Busch spins out nonsensical observations on the urban condition -- "You hammer and you nail/ But you've got to be kidding/ Over the oxygen/ You're flipping a dime" -- while investing every line with a crackpot urgency. "Mary Ann" employs horns and woodwinds and punchy drums to craft an asylum inmate's sock hop anthem, and "Colorado Shore" chugs with rock in its heart and God-knows-what on its mind, boasting Warren G-funk keys and one of the catchiest hooks of the collection.

Manishevitz certainly let the freak flag fly, coming at conventions from unusual and untoward angles. But they consistently ground their sound in classical pop territory, and never lose sight of the listenable. And I can say with confidence: Virginia is for lovers of Manishevitz. Or at least it should be.