Joe Mannix’s “White Flag” starts out with an amazing one-two punch. The first song, “Silver Girl,” has such soaring beauty that it’s hard to stop listening to it and move on to the rest of the record. But you should, since #2, “Bellrose Hill,” is strummy toe-tapper with an irresistible refrain. This is a beautifully produced (by Glenn Marshall, a student of Daniel Lanois) album that showcases Mannix’s tuneful voice and wistful, melancholic songs. Mannix has a light, almost familiar voice, but he throws it all over the melodic range in such a fearless, all-out way that you’re smitten. “Do you still live in that big open room / do you still keep those secrets from the world?” he asks an old acquaintance on “Silver Girl.” “Do you still cry yourself to sleep at night / do you still love the rain, silver girl?” This heartbreaking stanza stands out for its melodic beauty as well as its creation, with a few lyrical strokes, of a vivid character – something Lucinda Williams used to do brilliantly, but seems to have moved away from.
“Light After the Darkness” is spare and eloquent. The acoustic guitar sounds dry and crunchy, with Mannix’s voice, full and emotional, backed by a quiet piano. “Bamboo” hits some of the same notes and emotional territory as “Silver Girl,” but a few lyrical slack spots make the song less of a knockout. Similarly, “Higher Intervention” seems to be too smooth for its own subject matter – “I’m running out of desperate things to do” is a great line, but the song’s charging, rocky feel and easy lyrics (“Lady Luck has passed me by”) keep the emotion from cresting.
Mannix’s singing has been compared to Neil Finn’s and Michael Penn’s, but Mark Eitzel should be mentioned too – the two singers both use an effective, honest wail. Mannix’s sound is more squarely in the folk-rock tradition than Eitzel’s – a website describes him as “Phil Ochs meets PF Sloan with The Band.” His album has its share of rockers, like the title track, “White Flag,” showing characteristic melodic flair. “Last Gang in Town” has a Celtic drone behind its catchy chorus. The collection as a whole is an unabashedly pretty and well-recorded throwback to the folk-pop tradition of the 1970s.