Disc Reviews January 18 2006 (3)

Harry Manx - Mantras for Madmen

Don’t be misled by the title. There’s nothing particularly mad about Manx’s smooth, bluesy, singer/songwriter fare, and the mantras are rarely more than bubbling under the surface. But on his sixth album in as many years, Manx applies his knowledge of East Indian music to add subtle world touches to emotionally moving tunes.

Bringing raga into Western blues and pop is nothing new: Mike Bloomfield, the Byrds, Donovan and the Beatles were doing it four decades ago. Yet Manx, who lived in India for five years and studied the Mohan Veena — a multistringed mix of sitar and lap steel guitar that appears on about half the tracks — under the instrument’s creator, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, is more than just an outsider looking in.

Only two instrumentals find the disc in full Indian mode. Generally, Manx adds the sounds and scales to spice, rather than base, his Western-style folk-blues curry. He mixes tabla with mandolin and lap slide on “Your Sweet Name” to effortlessly fuse bluegrass, blues, pop and Indian textures in less than four minutes. A cover of J.J. Cale’s “San Diego-Tijuana” brings a shadowy south-of-the-border vibe interestingly consistent with the Eastern scales.

Most importantly, Manx writes charming, memorable melodies wafting with pungent instrumentation that bend genre borders without breaking them.