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Review: Harry Manx & Kevin Breit, Strictly Whatever

Harry Manx & Kevin Breit
Strictly Whatever
[Stony Plain Records (2011)]

Harry Manx’s self-issued recordings on Dog My Cat Records, such as his astonishing live solo performance in Australia on the 20-string Mohan Veena lap slide guitar culminating a lengthy apprenticeship with the instrument’s inventor and virtuoso in India, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Road Ragas, features a repertoire of country and city blues on six string lap guitar, banjo, and harmonica, with Manx pulling out the odd hybrid Veena for a revelatory version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” sequenced into an original instrumental “Sunday Morning Ascension.” These pieces attain modal altitude not heard much in American roots music, although Dobro and steel guitar session star Jerry Douglas has ventured towards the sub-continent via the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia. Sitar-ry or sarodi harmonics in the service of rootsy American material has come to characterize Manx’s sound.

The repertoire of Manx and Kevin Breit leans more to the rock or pop end of the stylistic spectrum. Their instruments can be just as exotic, but when these two string-sliders apply their late night FM vocals and stacked harmonies the boundaries tend to get pushed into areas that have been broadened by psychedelic, chamber rhythm & blues, acid jazz and for lack of a better category moniker, The World Outside. [Check out Pacific Northwestern free-form late night radio pioneer Daniel Flessas any Friday at midnight for a coupla three hours of such, appropriately carrying on under the program name “The Outside World” streaming from Portland, Oregon’s KBOO.]

The Manx sound was further fleshed out with other collaborators and an even broader musical palette on the 2005 Mantras For Madmen recording from Salt Spring Island, BC with a combo that included harmonists Emily Braden, Linda Kidder, Joani Bye, and Helen Davis. Manx’s burnished British Columbian blues rasp and exotic string interplay with drummer Geoff Hicks, tabla & hang & bells adept Niel Golden, and bassist Billy Mendoza with Steve Warriner’s soulful harmonica weaving in and out of the mix, wrung even spookier after-tones on J.J. Cale and Christine Lakeland’s “San Diego-Tijuana” than the 1990 human trafficking original from Cale’s Travel-Log. The current collaboration with Kevin Breit, Strictly Whatever, suffers from the lack of interplay between the multi-tracking string aces and lone drummer/percussionist Art Avalos.

Avalos seems to have been instructed by co-producers Manx & Breit to approximate a click track or Linn microchip pattern. This isolation leaves even musically dynamic sequences such as Manx’s brief national steel guitar prelude “Note To Self” with Breit gliding by on electric slide for a funky rendezvous with Manx’s Jerry Garcia wah-wah adaptation of Mary Elizabeth Frye’s poem “Do Not Stand At My Grave & Weep” less engaging than it could otherwise be. The metronomic precision yields a listless rhythm part. Breit’s own excursion into groove on his instrumental “Happy Trippy” comes closest to nailing a J.J. Cale-Jim Karstein Tulsa Time shuffle that pulses psychedelic groove. That’s thanks to Breit’s electric sitar riff braided with Manx’s processed baritone guitar figures and Avalos’ fingertips tattooing his percussion skins like a Kabylie Berber bendír or darbouka drum demon. Strictly Whatever would’ve benefitted from less of the former and more of the latter.

—Mitch Ritter (Beaverton, OR)

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