Trans Am’s Phil Manley has spent the last fifteen years immersed in independent rock playing in numerous notable bands (Trans Am, Golden, The Fucking Champs, Jonas Reinhardt), and is now working as a recording engineer and releasing solo material as well. While the tongue-in-cheek title Life Coach may partially be a reference to the qualities demanded of him in his most recent job engineering other bands’ recordings, the almost fully instrumental material it is comprised of mixes recent songs with stuff dating back all the way back to 2003, a decent stretch of Manley’s own life. It has been promoted as a deeply personal album for Manley, and listened to in relation with the voices of his other bands, this makes sense. For a Manley project, it is fairly serious sounding – eschewing his usually brash and flashy parts for a spartan focus – and takes 70’s German experimental music as his muse.
Arranged chronologically, a developmental analysis offers itself, but this is probably more like a partial peek into the vaults than a documentation of point A to point B. Lead track “FT2 Theme” treads in the same sonic water as the final two more recent tracks, with synths, drum machines, and sleek eBowed colors inhabiting a past future. That said, it also displays a rigidity and tension that is exemplified through the first third of the album. “Commercial Potential” and “Lawrence, KS” are almost brothers in timbre, the former with repetitive guitar, deep synth pads, and plinking piano figures painting a dreadful twilight and the latter a couple of repeating acoustic guitar parts floating above a tell-tale knocking that conjures the hopelessness of worrisome insomnia. The former pleases with it’s smooth movement from section to section while “Lawrence, KS” doesn’t really go anywhere of interest once it sets itself in motion.
The middle third downshifts into more impressionistic, sustained-tone territory. “Forest Opening Theme” is a gorgeous and calm little chord progression played in drone, and exudes a feeling of reawakening. “Work It Out” is perhaps the same sort of composition, only played with the brasher distortion and flair of his Trans Am and Fucking Champs material, making it a little bit piercing and intense. “Make Good Choices” rounds this textural third out with an ethereal 12-string acoustic fingerstyle piece which builds long but ultimately provides a release of tension which welcomes the final third of the album, which has a smoother, more peaceful feeling.
The short “Gay Bathers” combines a descending acoustic guitar chord progression with ebullient synths and some sassy do-do-dos, providing the lightest and perhaps catchiest moment on the album. This segues into the longest track, “Night Visions” which sounds similar to Mark McGuire’s cosmic, loop-based, guitar-only compositions. It’s interesting to note that Manley actually steered clear of loops and sequencers so that there would be idiosyncrasies throughout. This particular track is still too long with not enough variation to really deliver the trip it promises, but it still sounds fantastic. The title track closes the album out on a high note, with nimble fingers playing alternating notes way up and down the scale over the top of a steady pulse and beat. It’s a happy ending, a long ways away from the tense minor-key workouts from the earlier part of the album.
There’s a nagging feeling that Life Coach is a sketchbook instead of an art exhibit, and feels a little insubstantial at times. The album hits more than it misses, though, and makes up for the fact that it doesn’t really have too much new to say by trading in an impressive range of styles while managing a moody cohesiveness. Regardless of whether you end up finding this to be more minimalist or minor, it shows sides of Manley only hinted at in his past compositions, and a shorter wait before the next solo release would be welcomed.