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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
Now for the good news: The domestic release of Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.’s second solo album is finally here, and Catnip Dynamite is much, much better than its title. Manning has spent the last 15 years turning tricks for part-time employers like Beck, Morrissey, and Glen Campbell instead of rolling, Scrooge McDuck-style, on grotesque mounds of money, so there clearly isn’t as much of an audience for his brand of immaculately crafted pop as there should be – but if you have a sweet tooth to go with your rock ‘n’ roll jones, you’ve either been following his work for years or you’ve been waiting all your life to hear it.
Listeners in the former camp are already no doubt aware that Catnip is the follow-up to 2006’s The Land of Pure Imagination (or Solid State Man, as most of it was known in Japan), and probably paid obscene import prices for Catnip’s Japanese pressing when it was released last year – but if you’ve been holding out on principle for an American company to bring the album to our shores, you’ll be pleased to know that these songs have been well worth the wait. Catnip Dynamite acts as a slightly more rockin’ counterpart to Pure Imagination, adding handclaps and crunchy guitars to Manning’s intricately stacked layers of vocals; the record gets off to a fast start, with the quasi-new wave roller-rink stomp "The Quickening," and never really lets up, dealing out hook after perfectly polished hook. There aren’t any real standout tracks, but there aren’t any weak spots, either – and when was the last time you heard an album that could boast that kind of front-to-back strength?
The holdouts will also be pleased to know that Oglio has taken care to tack on three live bonus tracks – and two of them are pretty cool: Manning and band run through Thomas Dolby’s "Europa and the Pirate Twins," then wrap things up with "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding." Neither performance is as tightly packed as a typical Manning studio performance, but that’s a given; it’s just a treat to hear his take on a pair of classics.
And "treat" sums up Catnip Dynamite pretty neatly, actually – listening to it is the audio equivalent of eating a case of Skittles and chasing it with a six-pack of Mountain Dew, only instead of puking your guts out afterwards, you just want to do it all over again. Manning remains one of pop’s most criminally underappreciated songwriters – but even if the rest of the world lacks the good taste to turn this album into a multiplatinum hit, it’ll give the true believers at least a dozen reasons to keep it spinning in heavy rotation for months to come.