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Manchester, United 

That was fast. I mean, you let these guys out of your sight for a second and they a) move to Seattle, b) book a dozen shows in a town most people have a hard time booking one in, c) paper the city in flyers, d) catch the attention of a rock critic and recent & eacute;migr & eacute; from the real Manchester and e) get a 750-word feature story on them in the Stranger, Seattle's pre-eminent culture rag -- 750 meandering, generally positive words in a paper more known for brief, withering denunciations. Impressive.

Granted, much of that article wasn't about Manchester (the band) at all, tending more toward wistful reflection of Manchester (the city), liturgical recitation of its famous bands, wanton name dropping and, of course, furious intellectual masturbation.

But damn, two weeks. And though the article wasn't particularly flattering in parts (containing the quote, "Manchester are a very bad pub-rock duo."), writer Dave Maass' conceit -- letting real Mancunian musicians riff on these two Whitworth poseurs -- was captivating.

And it's not as though Manchester aren't inviting a little criticism, scorn even. Apart from taking the name of northern England's most famous town for pop music outside of Liverpool (though really, what's Liverpool done for us lately?) and singing in outrageously bad British accents, they've never even been to Manchester and admittedly know very little about it. Also: they play a poppyragtime, for God's sake. Take a moment to acquaint yourselves with that particular art form (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ragtime or just myspace.com/manchesterlive).

Go ahead, I'll wait. This is important...

Yeah, ragtime.

And though guitarist Cory Siebe credits the Decemberists with making it "'OK' to do our British thing," it's Manchester's American South thing, that turn-of-two-centuries-ago sound, that's so distinctive. Maass wrote: "Their music is a campy American approximation of the British approximation of American ragtime," but that's not quite right.

Their music is more like revisionist histrionics. Jonathan Pasma's (keyboards, primarily) collusion with jazz and ragtime, Siebe's straightforward pop sensibilities and both lads' affection for the burnt air of northern England creates an exaggerated American overlay of British tropes, a (conscious or unconscious) juxtaposition of the Deep South of our country and industrial north of Maass'. It's no surprise, then, when Siebe's light though workmanlike tenor turns dour, heading from a sloppy approximation of Mancunese to a grotesque Anglo-southern chimera -- Ebenezer Scrooge meets Forrest Gump (seriously, you want him to stop mid-song and say, "I'm sorry I had to fight in the middle of your Black Panther party.")

It all sounds so light and blithe -- accordion, melodica, whistling; lyrics about pilgrims, taxi drivers, cobbled street corners -- that the working poor aren't the first thing to come to mind, but that's exactly what the powerful, uncommodified musical forms that have sprung from both places have in common. Poverty, suffering, perseverance.

So, when the duo harmonizes the line, "Nine months, three days I been in this place / and the walls that keep me here are my constant guilt," over lively piano and harmonica, there's a queer pang in your sternum, the kind people get when they laugh to keep from crying. It's not a new thing to throw depressing lyrics over upbeat lines (see: 90 percent of all pop), but here it has the collective historical burden of the industrial revolution and reconstruction -- black lung and slavery -- to make heavy the lightheartedness. It's a form pregnant for deep storytelling, and indeed, that's what Siebe suggests the two are moving towards.

"[Our] lyrics are our way of creating a little world that can be ours. We can explore it and create its characters," Siebe says, adding, "The record shows a little bit of this idea of having Manchester characters that appear over and over again in songs... Miss Jenkins, Sally, the Baker." Their new project, then, is to take these character sketches and fill them out. One song focuses on this Miss Jenkins, who, we find out, is a 26-year-old librarian. "She is perfect in almost every way," says Siebe. "She sits quietly -- with a tea she bought at the bakery -- she supports the local scene -- she goes early to work at the library." He then allows himself a bit of artistic indulgence. "It might become similar to Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon -- but [it's] underdeveloped at this point."

Underdeveloped, in case you're keeping score, is the key word in that passage. And indeed, the question left wide open by their frequently thrilling debut album is how long the trick will remain fresh -- if, indeed, they'll be able to broaden their unique conceit into a persistent aesthetic. It's going to take the kind of storytelling Siebe hints at when speaking of their new work, and he expresses a bit of skepticism. Pasma, who has been hooked on ragtime since childhood isn't worried about keeping people interested. "Manchester is contagious; once it hits your ears, you cannot flush it out of your system," he says, sounding every bit like the street corner salesman he'll assuredly immortalize one day in song. "The only cure is three doses of Metallica and ACDC -- each separately -- every day for two weeks." Judging from the way they stormed through Spokane and the way they're lighting up Seattle, the prognosis for curing manchestitis might be far more grim, requiring a complete ragtimectomy. For the moment though most folks are content to live with the affliction.

Manchester at Caterina Winery on Saturday, Sept. 2, and at Whitworth College on Saturday, Sept. 3. Both shows at 7:30. Both shows free. Visit myspace.com/manchesterlive.

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