No matter how autobiographical, raw, confessional and honest, it still needs to be chopped and formed into songs, dude; and that is artifice and the process of transforming and redeeming experience. The magic of melody nearly always trumps the propositions and arguments of language. As Jeff Tweedy put it, melody does the heavy lifting in songs. Language defers to – literally lies down into – the phrase shapes and the mysterious and probably physics-based emotional code of melody. And this alone is why I am never quite comfortable calling lyrics poetry. It has nothing to do with whether lyrics are higher or lower; just that poetry is purely the music of language and meaning. Lyrics are rhythmically subordinate to, and invested with much of their meaning by, the otherworldly overlord of melody.
Frankenstein Dog’s Billy Manas has long been a lyrics-first kind of writer. His song-forms, melodies, grooves and progressions are sturdy and (I say without malice) inherited, reinventing no wheels because the old ones take him home just fine. They are not the point. The point – and the riches – are found in the gruff bleeding-heart persona; the sharp-but-minimalistic and strictly controlled narrative detail; and a constant welling, draining and refilling of raw, personal emotion through the tensions and releases of his standard forms. Next time you hear an effective and affecting lyrics-first, narrative and nakedly personal songwriter like Billy Manas, just remember that this act of staying out of the way of the lyrics is a musical skill, not a literary one. Props where they are due.
When I heard that Jamie Saft was producing the new Frankenstein Dog record, I imagined something that could not be further from what Back to Busking actually is. I heard Manas in full-on high-drama rock mode with the global-groove wizardry of the brilliant keyboardist Saft (New Zion Trio, John Zorn, on and on) amping up everything, Saft probably calling his favorite local aces to help take Billy’s rock drama way, way next-level.
It wouldn’t have been a departure. The Frankenstein Dog that I remember was a visceral post-grunge American rock ‘n’ roll band – one that often featured the excellent Italian guitarist Fabrizio Di Camillo. While Manas’ street poetry always had something to do with Lou Reed, and while his vocal delivery bore the mark of Kurt more than any other single influence, there was always that tenderhearted confessional vulnerability amidst the rock grind. Even then, he somehow managed to make the lyrics and persona stand out. And that would be Saft’s challenge.
But no: Back to Busking is a true solo record. There are a handful of unison vocal overdubs and a few spots of harmonica (that may also have been tracked live, for all I know) and that’s it. Billy’s new songs are all Billy, with Saft staying out of the way of the lyrics too. One acoustic guitar and a harmonica do not make it folk music. This isn’t folk. It’s still a grunge-inflected take on blue-collar rock, with punk frankness and few trucker ballads and other pre-rock and country forms hinted at.
When Manas’ melodies do take a surprising turn, it is almost always in a Cobain kind of way: an unexpected resolution to a major third on the album-opening “Ocean of Soul” or the pure-Kurt major VI chord in the verse of “A Long Time Ago.” But when the hooks are huge – and they very often are on this lovely, Spartan record – they are lyrical hooks, married to effective and unfussy populist melodies. The insistent counting chorus of the beautiful, weathered love song “Hours” stands out for this reason, as does the cleverly structured verse shape of “‘Cept for You.”
It would be tempting to liken Manas’ real and raw life processing to the radically autobiographical, idiosyncratic (and kind of drop-dead-brilliant) recent work of Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozalek. But Manas, unlike Kozalek, apparently still believes in the process of converting personal suffering into something with handles on it for the common people; folk, I guess, it is after all, broadly defined.
Billy Manas will be supporting Back to Busking exactly as it was recorded: alone in front of a mic or two. Next up is a set at the WRWD Dutchess Airport Open House (car show, all kinds of stuff) on Saturday June 4. Frankenstein Dog plays at 2 p.m. To check out Back to Busking, visit https://frankensteindog.bandcamp.com.