Manuok – S/T

Manuok
S/T

It’s funny how a great band can make fans forgive a shitty band name. Archers of Loaf? Not a problem. Interpol? No worries, my man. My Morning Jacket? We’re all friends here, right? These crimes are forgivable, because we all love these records. Meanwhile, bands like Nine Inch Nails and Third Eye Blind will never rest in peace, because they tormented us not only with unpleasant band names but also with music that, you know, pretty much sucked.

I groaned, hard, when I saw the name attached to the artfully rendered cardboard jewel case: Manuok. OK, I think. Perhaps it’s some word from some foreign dialect that I’ve never heard. “Native American, methinks,” I said to myself, folding it over in my hands. Could Manuok let my naivety (stupidity) stand? No. Scott Mercado, the brains behind this whole shebang, just had to attach a sticker to the front cover, notifying me that “Manuok” is actually pronounced “Man-You-Oh-Kay.” Is this some sort of emo prank? Did Tim Kinsella start another band? I’m tired of this shit.

Two tracks in, however, and I’d almost forgotten about the band name (almost). On the first song, “Nometoucherpas” (no explanation attached to this one…might be Native American), little tufts of minor-key melody stick out all over the place. A halting drum pattern and sly acoustic guitar announce the track placidly, until the chorus washes in with gobs of broken-amp noise, and then back again, as if nothing happened. Mercado sounds a bit like Jeff Buckley in delivery and texture if not in range.

“Happy Cause” is one of two tracks – “Randb” (German?) is the other – that approximate Radiohead’s ‘sideways percussion sad piano ethereal voice’ formula, and Mercado makes it work better than most, especially on “Happy Cause,” which positively pops with dark energy and formless melody. The lyrics are generally indecipherable throughout the album, which is probably for the best: Harsh as this may sound, any man who names his band “Manuok” is not a man of the pen.

“Titleless” is Mercado’s pop indulgence, busting out of the shadows of a couple of dirges complete with a full-bodied GBV-styled acoustic march. Mercado, who never oversings, croons sweetly over the album’s simplest arrangement. It’s enough to make you wish he went pop more often, but its affect here, in the middle of a murky album, is a near-epiphany. “Flowers for Algernon” is his other great melody, though the sweet curves of the chorus have to struggle through some muddy verses.

The album’s dark intentions are partly a product of some less-than-stellar mixing/recording. It’s a damn shame, too, because the restraint Mercado shows with most of these songs could’ve greatly benefited from a clean transition. This self-titled album is Mercado’s first, and its 25-minute runtime feels like just the perfect chunk of your life to give to Mercado and his merry batch of dark little pop tunes. Manuok is a excitingly strong first offering, one that suggests that Mercado has legs, both as a songwriter and as a singer. He is by no means a singular voice, but he never sounds truly indebted to any of his influences, either. At the very least, we can all stop worrying about the deliriously stupid moniker and enjoy this album for what it is: a strong, surprising gem of melody and intrigue.