The trajectory of Manifest!, the hotly anticipated debut LP from Brooklyn’s Friends, is like that of a dramatically over-theatrical friend over the course of the party. The line between playacting and genuineness is often toed (watching Friends perform live, or rather, watching Samantha Urbani strut around and hug audience-members, is both gratifying and annoyingly twee; the band’s music videos are poster-children for Gen Y Instagram Syndrome), the music itself is immanently danceable and sometimes goofy, and flashes of brilliance are often around the corner. It’s honest-to-goodness excellent pop music, coated in a new-new-wave/funk eclecticism that seems to have been bubbling in Brooklyn for a minute now, and, regardless of or despite Friends’ affectations, you’ll end up just glad to have heard it.
“I'm His Girl,” the song every one of us has heard over and over by now, indicates the band’s strengths as well as any on the record. It’s impossible to resist that bass line, and the backing vocals and percussion are sultry, but the focal point is (as on most of the songs here) Urbani’s voice and lyrics, which are fascinating in their innocence (in terms of not mentioning sex) and oddly rational, espousing neither martial girl-power or marital longing. Urbani sings about the trust in a happy relationship rather than the emotional pitfalls of a failing one—how strange and refreshing. (On the other hand, the ham-fisted feminism of “Van Fan Gor Du” is cannibalized by the refrain “Hey, hey, do I give you that naughty feelin’?”) At its best, her voice registers somewhere near Amber Coffman’s (of Dirty Projectors) in “Stillness is the Move,” and though she doesn’t actually approach the chops of Mariah Carey, her stretches of falsetto or sotto voce tend to be her most arresting.
And honestly, there are fairly unimpressive moments: “A Light,” which charts a straightforward dance-pop path, finds Urbani’s voice heavily digitized and lacking the intrigue you come to expect from her. “Ruins” is likewise underwhelming, though for different reasons: over a dark, moody punk rhythm, the verses come like bad spoken-word poetry before variations of the phrase “boring, sexy guy” lead up to an absent chorus, replaced by lead guitar and Urbani’s grossly sexual yelps and coos. The song is just over two minutes long, which is exactly how long it’s bearable, but even that brevity reveals a degree of forethought on the band’s (or perhaps engineer Daniel Schlett’s) part.
It’s difficult to generalize about an album like Manifest!. For every flat moment or forgettable song there soars an incredibly high peak, the kind of song you keep on repeat for a solid hour. And even this binary critical formula fails; some songs succeed and stumble at the same time: The lyrics of “Ideas on Ghosts,” another dime-a-dozen dance track, express a kind of macabre fascination with the idea of death, the strangeness of knowing that it must happen but having no idea what it’s like: “Cause I don’t know how to die / Just because I haven’t done it yet / But when I have to I will try to do it right.” Similarly, closing track “Mind Control” is almost painfully enjoyable, with its Herbie Hancock synth groove, funk guitar and tongue-in-cheek, silly subject matter masquerading as seriousness. Urbani’s growls and echoed shrieks are cool, at least at first, but the gimmick has a shelf date. What I can’t help but be enthralled by, though, is the first line of the chorus, which, aside from its great sounds—those long o’s and e’s—is as good a mantra for individualism and honest self-inquiry as I’ve heard in a pop song: “Hold holy only what you want.” Like your friend’s pre-dawn rhapsodizing, it kind of makes you want to change your life.