Even if you haven’t heard of Roger Manning Jr., you’ve probably heard Roger Manning Jr. In certain pop-geek circles, he is known for his work with the short-lived (but much beloved) power-pop band Jellyfish. He’s also played keyboards for Beck, remixed tracks by Air and contributed to the soundtrack of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. After years of working as a session player, lurking in the periphery, Roger Manning Jr. has finally released a solo album, and the result is spectacular.
In this instance, the phrase “solo album” can be understood quite literally. Over a four-year span, Manning performed and recorded every song on The Land of Pure Imagination in its entirety in his home studio. That feat is impressive on paper, but it’s even more impressive when you actually listen to the record. All eleven tracks are immaculately recorded and feature a brilliant palette of keyboard and guitar textures, harmony vocals and subtle flourishes you probably won’t notice until your fifth listen. Stylistically, various flavors of ’60s psychedelic rock (“The Land of Pure Imagination”) and ’70s piano pop (“Wish it Would Rain”) are represented, along with the occasional venture into creepy lullabies (“Sandman”) and straight-up power pop (“Creeple People”). Manning’s songs are beyond intricate: each contains enough melody for three songs. Despite the complexity of the arrangements, the songs proceed from start to finish effortlessly.
There’s precious little downside here. Some argue that Manning’s lyrics function to deliver the melody but aren’t incredibly memorable, but I would be perfectly happy listening to this even if the lyrics had been sung in Sanskrit. Some may say the album is just a little too polished. Perhaps if one or two tracks conceded a few rougher edges, the blissful perfection of the others would be that much more evident, but this complaint is minor.
A staggering amount of intelligence and energy was poured into The Land of Pure Imagination, and it’s evident in every track. Though Manning Jr. has gained a reputation as a skilled musical collaborator, he’s proven that he’s more than just a hired gun. More like a one man army.