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Record covers are becoming a lost art. Take the jacket of, oh, Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, whose gorgeously sloppy calligraphy is perfect shorthand for the ramshackle rock impressionism contained therein. These days, unless you collect vinyl, cover art has largely been reduced to tiny squares in the bottom corner of iTunes. Music is losing its visual, tactile context. Fine.
But, with Phil Manley’s Life Coach, you should really peek at the record cover before listening. There stands Phil, a serious artist in the middle of some unidentified Western sky, deep blue punctuated by white clouds as soft as cotton balls. He’s not wearing pastels, though. He’s got a T-shirt printed with a fake blue sky and fake white clouds—as serious a sartorial choice as a Brooklynite’s favorite howling wolf tee.
This largely sums up the album. As the title suggests, Life Coach is at least partially a deadpan tribute to chilled out New Age tunes, though it’s more deeply inspired by the freeform Krautrock innovations of Neu! and Kraftwerk. The better material on the record might even have worked on the German LPs Manley pays homage to: “Night Visions” stretches past nine minutes, with tense, ambient guitar explorations centered on a droning, repetitive minor-key riff, and no percussion. “Forest Opening Theme” has Eno-like soft synths and a contemporary videogame feel (Miyamoto, are you listening?), though it’d just as suitably complement a meditation session.
But Life Coach isn’t all sauerkraut and sausage. On several tracks, the Trans Am member employs old-school, The Life Aquatic-grade drum machines, which only work sometimes. But on songs like “Commercial Potential,” delay-ridden piano and fake strings combine with the synthetic drums to channel the corniest idioms of prog-rock history.
Still, Manley’s humor shines through in unexpected moments, like the brief “Gay Bathers,” which is thick with cheesy, electronically bowed guitars and a goofy, Hall & Oates-style “doot-doo-doo-doot-doo.” It’s clear that Manley’s not taking himself too seriously with Life Coach, but he never sacrifices ambition. He’s somehow made a record that should please both prog-happy record store clerks and sweat-pants-clad yoga lovers—perhaps a bizarre accomplishment, but an accomplishment nonetheless.