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Manicured Noise - Northern Stories 1978/80

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Artist: Manicured Noise

Album: Northern Stories 1978/80

Label: Caroline True

Review date: Feb. 2, 2007

Coming late to the UK post-punk reissue phenomenon is a lengthy and fairly welcome edition: the discography of Manicured Noise, a Manchester band in the right place and time, but under-represented and fairly anonymous until now. Frontman Steve Walsh moved up from London in late ’78 for, in his words, “Northern grit.” Whether he found it or not still remains to be answered, but his four-piece group did their share in roughing things up when and where they could. A sprightly, funky l’il band for the proletariat, Manicured Noise followed a lot of the same tenets of X-Ray Spex or Delta 5 – co-ed lineup, bouncy rhythms, jagged guitars, sloganeered lyrics, even a saxophone to keep the party going. These items were offset by Walsh’s nerve-wracked, impassioned vocal delivery, not unlike David Byrne’s, which in itself is countered by the relative slickness of the bulk of their work. If you haven’t heard this band before, you could probably make a pretty good guesstimation by the clues and signifiers in the text above. They played the Factory nights at the Russel Club, were allegedly courted by that label, and opened for groups such as Wire, the Pop Group, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Soon after the turn of the decade, the band had split for the usual reasons, leaving behind an unreleased single, plenty of songs in the vault, and memories of their harried moment.

In this brief time, Manicured Noise released two singles (“Faith b/w Freetime” and “Metronome” b/w “Moscow 1980,” both on major label imprint Pre), and unsurprisingly, the A-sides of these records reveal the band’s strongest cuts. “Faith” runs with a loose thread pulled out of early Talking Heads, the track’s loopy bassline and yelping, action-filled lyrics pogoing in and out of frame, and “Metronome” improves on this formula with a tighter arrangement, bound to a rhythmic spine as upright as its title dictates. But Northern Stories is 18 tracks long (culled from radio sessions and unreleased recordings), and the tracks that didn’t make the release schedule bear out far more of the group’s personality, with urbane, danceable, somewhat moodier signifiers. “Long March” is a less manic take on “Faith,” so much so that it could pass for an early version of the single, with only lyrics and slightly different guitar/sax interplay to differentiate between the two. That same spirit is evident in rousing tracks like economy anthem “Payday,” “Mystery Sound,” and the throbbing instrumental “Competition.” As the disc rolls on, a fascination with disco Chic and pre-’75 Roxy Music becomes evident, those groups’ cast-off flamboyance cannibalized for working parts. Down the line, sounds like these would pay off for groups like Simply Red, ABC, Culture Club, and various other chart-toppers; in the short term, they did provide a blueprint for bands like Maximum Joy and Rip Rig + Panic, following more closely to Manicured Noise’s socialist groove.

More difficult efforts from an early incarnation of the group featuring vocalist Owen Gavin – recorded by the Flying Lizards’ David Cunningham at This Heat’s studio – reveal a darker and more brooding outfit, fixated on meandering tones and filmic qualities. In particular, there’s a fascination with film composer Lalo Schifrin, who’s covered here twice – once in “The Human Fly,” from his score to Enter the Dragon, and again in the dub-treated, experimental “Great White Whale.” These tracks provide insight into where the band ended up, weighing the lesser of two struggles and deciding to keep thinks topical and danceable instead of cerebral and arcane. There’s no shame in their decision, as this solidified the group’s most winning trait – a workmanlike demeanor that adds sturdiness to this material, and a listenability that some of their peers tended to lose in their less commercial moments. Which suggests that if you pick this up, you’ll be coming back to it more than you might have expected. It’s a Northern story, alright, maybe not one you haven’t heard before, but it’s well-told and its characters the sort of archetypes you don’t mind being around.

By Doug Mosurock

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