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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: Robert Joseph Manning, Jr. - Catnip Dynamite

Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. – Catnip Dynamite
2009, Oglio Records

Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. has quite the Rock N Roll resume: Keyboard player for Beatnik Beatch, Jellyfish and Imperial Drag, and highly involved in The Moog Cookbook. Manning has also done session/tour work with Beck and French group Air. These days Manning does session work and composes soundtrack (Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation) as well as writing commercials for VH1, Comedy Central and the like. Somewhere in there he also found time to write and record a new solo album entitled Catnip Dynamite. True to its title, the album is intoxicatingly good.

Catnip Dynamite is retro-rock with a modern edge. The harmonies here evoke thoughts of The Beach Boys, Queen and Styx. Manning is a highly accomplished songwriter, presenting intricate and interesting song construction, lyrical content and melodic flow throughout the album. The other interesting facet of the album is the recurrence of philosophical/religious imagery and themes throughout the album. I don’t get the feel that this is a religious album, but some of these deeper concepts certainly appear to be weighing on Manning at this point in his life; at times in serious terms and perhaps at times with ironic intent. The album opens with The Quickening, where Manning sounds more than a little bit like Prince vocally. The harmonies transform from a Brian Wilson-era Beach Boys sound to Freddie Mercury led Queen. This is a great pop rock song that would fly on commercial radio in almost any era. Down In Front is a retro-mod rock tune similar to bands such as Woodward or Tally Hall. My Girl has a strong bubblegum pop feel without being frivolous.

One of my personal favorites here is Imaginary Friend. The song is an amusing listen but the sound is like what you might get if The Doors sat down and jammed with They Might Be Giants. Perhaps the piece-de-resistance here is Haunted Henry, an amazing tale of a veteran ravaged by the ghosts of his experiences. This is an extremely melodic piece with Brian Wilson harmonies that doesn’t come across as overtly anti-war but certainly makes strong points about the cost of war for those who come back home. Haunted Henry is sonically gorgeous. Tinsel Town is a fun song that berates celebrity culture and our fascination with it. You should also be certain to check out The Turnstile At Heaven’s Gate. Reflecting on the concept of reincarnation and the judgments of an afterlife, Manning has crafted a melodic/harmonic mix that sounds like The Beatles meets Queen.

Survival Machine opens with faux harpsichord in a piece vaguely reminiscent of Suite Madame Blue, but that’s just a warm up for Living In The End Times; possibly the greatest apocalypse song ever written. Here Manning mixes tremendous harmonies with a tongue-in-cheek glam rock swagger. The album closes out with four live tracks. Drive Thru Girl is a campy ode complete with kazoo orchestra that you just have to hear. You Were Right sounds like something that might have come out of a Supertramp session, and Manning’s live take on Elton John’s Love Lies Bleeding sounds a bit like Billy Joel covering Elton John.

Catnip Dynamite is so good it’s exhausting. You can listen to this album casually but you won’t get everything out of it that you might. Manning has always had a taste for classic rock and interesting compositions, but Catnip Dynamite represents a plateau in his career. Having been familiar with much of his work prior to this, I think it is safe to say that Catnip Dynamite may be the best he’s written/recorded to date. Don’t miss Catnip Dynamite, a Wildy’s World Certified Desert Island Disc!

Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)

You can learn more about Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. at or You can purchase a copy of Catnip Dynamite on, or you download the album through iTunes.

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