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Beat Street
By Todd S. Inoue

Barbara's a Boxer:
Barbara Manning of the SF Seals makes brainy pop records and sells them in person

Winning a Bammie for Outstanding Alternative Album (Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows) and being on the Matador label hasn't changed Barbara Manning one lick. When not creating some of the best brainy pop around, she's ringing up CDs at Reckless Records in San Francisco. From her spot behind the counter, she can see firsthand how her records are selling. "In our store, the record sells slow, but I always get delighted when somebody buys it," Manning says. "Sometimes, someone will wait to get me in line and buy the record. I can tell they were excited to come up to me and buy it. It's like, 'Thank you so much! I really need this!' "

Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows, recorded with her band, SF Seals, contains some of Manning's strongest tracks yet. Throughout the album, Manning transcends the misleading image of a yodeling yokel while building up her keen pop sensibilities and sly metaphors that warmly strum and tightly yank heart strings. Guitarist Brently Pusser recently quit the group, so Manning is performing Spinanes style: vox/guitar/drums all by herself. "It feels like I added a drummer," she says. "My own guitar ability is strong--like my right arm is the band."

Manning grew up in a variety of unusual living situations, including a Grass Valley commune with her mother, a Chico junkyard and a cottage on the edge of a graveyard. While enrolled at Chico State, she discovered alternative music and joined the band 28th Day, releasing a self-titled EP in 1985. The group dissolved a year later, and Manning traveled to San Francisco, where she hooked up with Brandan Kearney and formed World of Pooh. In short order, she started work on her solo debut, Lately I Keep Scissors, considered a hallmark in personal prosey pop. In 1990, Manning formed the Tablespoons with Melanie Clarin on drums and Kim Osterwalder on cello. A bassist was added a year later, and the band was renamed the SF Seals, after the old baseball team.

Manning has been tagged as an indie-folkie, a label she regularly flouts by recording challenging, noisy work. "I really react against it," says Manning. "World of Pooh wasn't folk. Glands of Eternal Secretion wasn't folk. I have a respect for folk music, and I know what it is. I am not folk." One thing is for certain: Manning is a perpetual workaholic--always appearing on different compilations under dubious names. Beside her two jobs, she's also working on a musical project called The Arsonist's Story, which consists of five songs describing a week in the life of a troubled human firebug.

Having toiled in obscurity for years, Manning is a bit edgy about seeing Alanis Morrisette play two capacity shows at the Greek Theater. "I have an even lower opinion of Joan Osborne," Manning admits. "She came into Reckless and was really rude. She was one of those pissy, bitchy customers who didn't want to look for something. I'd tell her where it was, and she'd say, 'I don't want to go and get it.' I've never forgotten that."

With pop's history of natural selection, Osborne will certainly be bagging up SF Seals' platinum records some day as a form of wicked redemption, despite Manning's nagging self-doubts. "I sometimes feel if you don't hit right away, you're going to stay the same level," she worries. "I'm doing things that I'm satisfied with. I'm 31, and it makes you wonder when you have to start facing reality." Manning performs at San Jose's Agenda Lounge on Tuesday (April 30).

Concrete Blackboard Jungle

San Jose State University Amphitheater is in the midst of its outdoor Locals Only Aloud afternoon concert series. Soda performs Monday (April 29); Monkey appears Tuesday (April 30). The free shows start at noon.

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro

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