The Oglio Entertainment Group
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Roger Joseph Manning Jr. has it tough. As a member of legendary defunct pop band Jellyfish, he ascended to a place of royalty among retro rock and power pop aficionados. The San Francisco-based band's two albums were full of the type of tunes that result when chemistry is at its peak and melodies seem to fall from trees like apples. However, Manning, like many in more recognizable rock company, has yet to deliver something that grabs the collective collar of his former band and will always be compared to his past gold-gilded glory.
With that in mind, while his second full-length solo offering, Catnip Dynamite, oozes with the trademark vocals, ever-present keyboards and stellar musicianship, a prevalence of unforgettable pop gems is missing. Perhaps enough time did not pass between this record and his consistently better 2006 debut full-length, The Land of Pure Imagination. After all, Manning had years to write the material for his debut.
Just the same, there is plenty of material on Catnip Dynamite that deserves notice. The prog rock-influenced, with its seemingly matched prog title, "The Turnstile at Heaven's Gate," contains the strongest melodic chorus on the disc and is powered by intricate bass playing and tight, adventurous drumming. "Love's Never Half as Good" cruises along in wide-mouthed smile mode like a sea and sundrenched day with its vintage keyboards, harmonies and classic pop rhythms. The final "true" album track comes rolling out of the stereo with a humorous faux intro, with the emcee praising and introducing the artist in old radio show fashion. Manning quickly follows, delivering a catchy piano ditty appropriately titled, "Drive Thru Girl," about his infatuation with a fry-flinging beauty.
The U.S. release of this album also contains three bonus tracks, including a live version of "You Were Right," perhaps Manning's finest compositional work since his much-missed Jellyfish days. When the album ends, Catnip Dynamite has seemingly flowed, at least at times, like a religiously themed novel of sound. The question remains as to whether his expressed views are more akin to the hypocrisy detailed in the film Saved, the scathing nature of Religulous, or the faith wrestling of The Apostle. Perhaps Manning's next solo record will conceptualize the struggles of writing a great pop song. There would certainly be no doubt as to where he was coming from thematically and many a legendary popsmith would certainly relate. -- Chris Callaway