Release Date: Jan 25, 2011
Record label: Thrill Jockey
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Given the sense of humor Phil Manley and the rest of Trans Am show on their albums, the title of his solo debut, Life Coach, suggests it might be wall-to-wall kitsch. While wit is never far from his music, these tracks are playful in a subtler way than his other projects. Life Coach's basic sound is of a piece with Trans Am and Jonas Reinhardt, mixing German-inspired electronic and acoustic sounds with a deft touch, but Manley works with a distinct set of motifs here: insistent guitar arpeggios, whether they’re electric or acoustic, add a thoughtful cast to Life Coach, and the busy figures on “Lawrence, KS” and “Make Good Choices” suggest that John Fahey is as big an influence on Manley as Kraftwerk and Can are.
Anyone looking for common threads that bind together the work of Phil Manley, whether it be in his 20-year stint in Trans Am, occasional appearances with Oneida, or his engineering duties with stargazers like Arp, Moon Duo, and Wooden Shjips, would most likely settle on a mixture of ever-repeating krautrock grooves and the eternal space mapped out by electronic pioneers bracketed under the kosmische musik banner. So it's appropriate that his debut solo record serves as a sort of tribute to Conny Plank, the legendary German producer who had a hand in refining both the combustible grooves of Neu! and Can and more free-floating approach of Cluster and early Kraftwerk. Those influences are keenly felt within the first 30 seconds of Life Coach's opening track, "FT2 Theme", which knots a spidery Michael Rother-inspired guitar line to a plodding electro groove and vast sheets of vintage synth sounds.
The solo debut from the singer and guitarist in Maryland kraut-funk weirdos [a]Trans Am[/a] is a calmer beast than much of his mother band’s work, reflective and almost [a]Mogwai[/a]-ish in places, as on the melancholy ‘[b]Lawrence, KS[/b]’. It would, if it really was a life coach, be intoning in your ear, “Come on. Just keep going. Listen to the thrum of the motorik.
Music critics (this writer included) have long sought after the record that would, once and for all, blend perfectly the sterile elements of synthesized music with the organic tones of traditional, analog sounds. Kid A comes to mind, as does the collective duh of this review’s readership upon scanning that line, though even that album hasn’t hushed the desires of musicians and audiences alike to continue to explore the surprisingly wide territory that such broad genre-blending can produce. In his work in Trans Am and the Fucking Champs, Phil Manley has already put his own signature on this particular type of sonic experimentation, whether in the minimalist rhythms of the former or the instrumental prog tendencies of the latter.
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.