Manuel's Labor

Texas native/Cincinnati transplant Steve Manuel landed in the Queen City with a handful of tuneful Pop/Rock songs he was eager to record. As his new CD shows, he found the right guys to work with he

Texas native/Cincinnati transplant Steve Manuel landed in the Queen City with a handful of tuneful Pop/Rock songs he was eager to record. As his new CD shows, he found the right guys to work with here in Cincy, teaming up with renowned producer/guitarist Ric Hordinski and producer/drummer Josh Seurkamp, known for their work locally with Kim Taylor, Over the Rhine, Dave Wolfenberger and Katie Reider. The result, Comic Book Hero, is an album of dynamic and sophisticated Pop music, with intricate, captivating layers, electronic, loopy quirks, plenty of spaciousness and lyrics that are spiritual and cleverly poetic.

Manuel and his co-conspirators host a two-night CD release party this weekend. Friday and Saturday, the trio performs at Hordinski's new studio/performance space, The Monastery (2601 Stanton Ave. in Walnut Hills). Both shows start at 8 p.m. Advance tickets are available before the shows at for $12; you can also buy them at the door for $15.

The tracks that really stand out on Comic Book Hero are the ones that are given creative, kaleidoscopic backdrops by the musicians and producers. Thankfully, that's practically all of them. The spare "Just As Well" is indicative of what a simple, acoustic singer/songwriter album from Manuel would sound like.

While still showcasing strong songwriting chops, the augmentations on the other tracks make them far more alluring and unique. Practically every track offers some kind of cool sonic nuance between the nooks and crannies, making the listening experience kind of like eating through several boxes of Cracker Jacks — there are prizes in each one and the caramel sticks with you (in your teeth with Cracker Jacks; in your brain with Manuel's songs).

U2 is perhaps the most evident reference point for the album. Manuel's voice has a tone similar to Bono's, and cuts like "In and Out of Me" and "Up With Love" have some of the aural earmarks of the band as well, mixed with a little Beatles-y glaze in the harmonies and production tricks (something evident throughout the disc).

Opener "Not My Clothes" recalls the sound and songs of a jaunty Peter Gabriel mixed with a little Brit Pop (a la Placebo), with its climbing, dramatic structure and melody. Other highlights include "Fooled," which features a soaring chorus hook and dirty yet pointed guitar work from Hordinski (who really stretches and shines on his six-string throughout), and the soulful "Go Somewhere," which is propped up by a grimy snare drum and one of Manuel's better vocal performances (he gets a little old-school Lenny Kravitz at times).

Sonically, "Prayer" is enthralling, with its wavering keys and streaks of string sounds, but the song itself is one of the few clunkers, sounding like a maudlin Top 40 hit by Five For Fighting or Train (which is good for the pocketbook, bad for the artistic soul). But, overall, Comic Book Hero is a rich, poignant Pop/Rock album that should draw much attention to Manuel's evident talents as both a writer and performer. (;

More Local Notes
· A few bands are doing local shows this week before hitting the trail to Austin, Tex., for the huge, annual South By Southwest music fest/conference in a couple of weeks. Psych Rock trio Buffalo Killers play an all-ages show Saturday at Covington's Mad Hatter. The band is joined by The Cincinnati Suds (featuring Greenhornes frontman Craig Fox) for the 10 p.m. show. SXSW veterans The Sundresses host a "bon voyage" party/concert Saturday at the Northside Tavern. The trio's SXSW stop is just one of many on the horizon for the band; they'll be traveling across the country until late April, getting the word out about their forthcoming CD, Barkinghaus. Newcomers White Girls (featuring former members of Gazelles!) opens for the 'Dresses Saturday. Indie Pop singer/songwriter Peter Adams is also playing the fest (sorry, no local gigs beforehand) with his Nocturnal Collective, then heading west for dates in California. And Roots Pop kings The Stapletons will be in Austin at SXSW-time, but performing at a competing festival. You can see the Stapletons off Saturday, when they play a free show at the Courtyard Café in Over-the-Rhine.

· Cincinnati Christian University in Price Hill is the site of a benefit concert for the children of Africa, specifically the ones in areas where they are being turned into killing machines. The show takes place Friday at 8 p.m. and features performances by All the Day Holiday, Pomegranates, Artists and Authors, A Time Has Come, Marissa Rinehart and Brock Hitecamp. Proceeds go to Invisible Children, Inc., which is helping raise awareness about the atrocities (see for more).


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