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Manitoba - Up In Flames

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Artist: Manitoba

Album: Up In Flames

Label: Domino

Review date: Jun. 10, 2003

Up In Smoke, Down In Flames

It will be a sorry indication if, in the future, 2003 is looked-back upon as the year that electro-vox-pop finally broke. From the blandness of Schneider TM and Postal Service to the merely faint success of Clue to Kalo and Pulseprogramming, to countless others, these days it’s tough to avoid the similar and immediately familiar mesh of poppy electronics with digitally tinkered-with sing-alongs, and most of the time it’s even tougher to enjoy it. The supposed novelty of such combinations has too often excused away the need for any other sort of innovation, and the hollow product that remains is, for the most part, immediately unrewarding and ultimately forgettable. Indeed, the mere fact of the combination of smooth electro and vocals has too often blinded listeners to the fact that the songs themselves; the melodies, the arrangements, and above all the lyrics, would be inexcusable in any other manifestation.

An old-time (but still relatively recent) innovator of this digital blah is Dan Snaith, who has recorded as Manitoba since the late nineties. His full-length (and inexplicably heralded) debut, Start Breaking My Heart (released first by Leaf, then again by Domino) ran through the motions lazily enough that there was little reason to suspect that anything of note was amiss with Manitoba nor with the entire genre.

It is (pleasantly) surprising then that on his new album, Up In Flames, Manitoba raises the bar considerably for the entire genre. Where once his songwriting was lazily emo, Up In Flames finds Manitoba exercising poppy, Brian Wilson-influenced (or at least Brian Wilson-influenced-influenced) melodies that are lushly disguised and elaborated upon almost beyond the point of recognition. More importantly, Snaith succeeds by riskily attempting to cram as many different sounds, instruments, and tones into each song, adding a hearty substantiality to what were once hollow and unsubstantial blips and bleeps. The lack of space and instrumental onslaught can, at times be a bit overwhelming, but Snaith takes good care to ensure that a general harmony and balance among activity is achieved with a minimal amount of abrupt transitions.

Another dicey tactic employed by Manitoba is the full-on combination of live instruments and electronics. While this has been the kiss of death for countless live electronic acts (live drums especially), Snaith doctors his recorded tones cleverly enough that their integration with the synthetics is nearly seamless; it’s not always apparent that many of the songs on Up In Flames are actually led by electric guitar and, in some cases, horns. His vocals are used sparingly and tastefully, and are sometimes processed beyond and human recognition, rendering them somewhere in-between the organic and the artificial, and blending them in tastefully among the flurry of sounds and tones.

The result of this multi-layered synergy, and what helps separate it from its soulless similars, is a record that is all at once satisfyingly complex, but also invitingly warm. The effort put forth to achieve this is admirably conscious, and will be difficult for others to imitate. However, it also should be said that this record, though it may be a shining star among its peers, is by no means flawless. The over-friendliness of the entire production can sometimes run a bit thin, and the generally unsyncopated thumping of drums and rhythmic noises often sounds trite compared to the frenzied variety of melodic sounds. As a whole, however, the electro-pop raising-of-the-bar that has been accomplished on Up In Flames should not be understated.

By Sam Hunt

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Start Breaking My Heart

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