NOW HEAR THIS! JOHN MANION: Fireworks in the Rain": CD Review

JOHN MANION: “Fireworks in the Rain”: CD Review
     The striking cover art of John Manion’s CD “Fireworks in the Rain” features the singer-songwriter dressed in a suit and fedora, looking quite “dapper”.  If “dapper” seems like an old-fashioned word to use in an album review for 2009, that’s the point… though I’d prefer you say “classic” rather than “old-fashioned”.  Manion stands against a background which is clearly an urban setting, likely his adopted hometown of New York City.  The location has seen better days, but it has clearly acquired a million stories through the years.  Most likely intentionally, the artwork mirrors Manion’s particular style for this collection of songs: Much of the music is influenced by classic blues, swing, and jazz– but there’s a sense of very modern urban grittiness and excitement that comes through all eight songs on “Fireworks in the Rain”…  and like the location where the album artwork was shot, Manion has a lot of stories to tell.  (“Vodka Vinnie”, a character who we meet later on in the album, definitely seems like a guy who could be either real or urban legend.)  The first track, the superb jazz- and lounge-flavored “Virtual Love”, is a prime example of this. It features lush vocals, piano, and saxophone for a rich, classic sound… yet the subject matter, about the ultimate alienation we face by modern-day cyber-relationships (“You are just a concept, living in a database; In theory you are flawless, with a pixel-perfect face… my virtual love”), couldn’t be more emblematic of life and love in 2009.  “Virtual Love” is a pinnacle of popcraft, but only one of many standout songs on the album.  The title track, “Fireworks in the Rain”, is an invigorating, zesty pop romp: We envision Manion doing an outdoors performance of the song to an excited, young crowd of urban trendsters as they clap their hands to the hooky “Sidelines, sidelines, sidelines!” verse.  Next up is “Me and Vodka Vinnie”, a high-energy blues/jazz piece which brings the titular character to life in all his booze-eyed glory.  “The Exiles and Horny Kids” is piano-driven (And expert piano at that!) neo-swing; think The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot”.  Manion gets to hit some exceptionally impressive notes for this one.  I hearby create a new genre for “Me and Vodka Vinnie” and “The Exiles and Horny Kids”: drinking music for the thinking man.   Regardless of his artistic stylings, Manion’s voice remains the heart of his musical appeal: His voice is soulful, smooth, and simultaneously strong yet sensitive.  Although he displays his life experiences and seemingly infinite observations about life in general through his music, Manion’s own voice is anything but world-weary; on the contrary, his vox remains refreshingly unblemished. 
     The finest song on the CD is Manion’s “Forever Stamp”.  His voice is lusty, but there’s a vulnerability that makes this ageless love song really hit its mark: “So I wrote you a letter just to clear my head, to try to make some sense out of what you said; In your mind I crossed the line, So I offered my regrets I signed; signed and sealed with a Forever stamp...” Offering something quite different, both in terms of sound and song structure, is “Even Heroes Get the Blues”, which has a psychedelic, almost industrial feel– with brimming, probing guitar.  Manion even takes a step back, giving us somewhat distant vocals– although he does, at moments, step back up to the mic to hit us with some impressive notes.  “Fireworks In The Rain” closes with “Purple Tinged Sunsets”. Like “Forever Stamp”, this track offers the listener a stiff shot of feverish romanticism without becoming, shall we say, “saccharine”.
     John Manion’s wrote or co-wrote all the music on “Fireworks in the Rain”, and it would be an understatement to say that his lyrics, sounds, and production values make an impression on the listener.  But even more impressive is how much vim and vigor that Manion packs into just eight songs.  “Fireworks in the Rain” is guaranteed to get sparks flying!   

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