Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.'s "sort of debut solo effort" (more on that later) comes with quite a bit of expectation and baggage attached to its release. His work with Jellyfish, Moog Cookbook, Imperial Drag, Air, and Beck leave no doubts as to the man's talents as a keyboardist, arranger and singer, but may also put too much weight on the merits of his solo project. Without that impressive credit list, Manning would be able to offer up his album with a fair field of play in front of him. As it is, though, his stature as a mega-sideman gives him little room for grand experimentation and instead puts the poor guy under an electron microscope. Jellyfish fans want more Jellyfish, Moog Cookbook aficionados want more burbling synths, and Beck fans expect more of the unexpected, yet they'll all be both pleased and disappointed, because while those facets are all present on Manning's The Land of Pure Imagination, they're not present in their purest respective forms. A little of this and a little of that pepper every track on the album, recalling portions of Jellyfish and Imperial Drag on most of the selections (especially on the anthemic rocker "Creeple People") with bits of the Moog Cookbook and Beck trickery thrown in for good measure. At face value, The Land of Pure Imagination feels like a Manning-fronted Jellyfish or Imperial Drag -- musically. Lyrically, though, Manning has a ways to go. Jellyfish bandmate Andy Sturmer handled those duties well in the grandiose rock milieu that that band operated in, injecting sexy swagger and rock machismo when necessary. Manning's lyrical trajectory is far more innocent and childlike, and lends even the most rocking track an amiable 'Saturday morning cartoon' quality (Jellyfish fans, imagine an album full of "Sebrina, Paste and Plato"-like schoolyard jubilance). Like the cartoonish paintings of doe-eyed '70s waifs that adorn the walls of his home, Roger Manning, Jr. flies the flag of innocence defiantly in the face of chest-beating rock posturing and, ultimately, seems a bit timid because of it. No track on The Land of Pure Imagination ever goes balls-out, and it's kind of a shame because nearly there rockers (like the aforementioned "Creeple People") have the potential to be real roof-blowers. It's not a big deal, though, and may just be a result of the misguided wish of a Jellyfish/Imperial Drag fan to have one more explosive rocker like "All Is Forgiven" or "Zodiac Sign" in the can. But the album nonetheless delivers on the promise of Manning's instrumental and vocal talents, which are featured on a grand scale. Every musical element is fussed over and perfectly placed, and Manning's multi-part vocals are absolutely stunning (as usual). Also par for Manning's course are the heavy influences of his longtime favorites the Beach Boys (on "Wish It Would Rain," "In the Name of Romance") and XTC ("Sandman" and "Dragonfly"), with the former of those two selections sounding like a lost track from the Nonsuch album and the latter sounding like a Dukes of Stratosphere outtake. There's no direct quoting of these bands, but their influence provides some familiar connective tissue for fans to latch onto. Reverent rather than plundering. Land is a great album when judged on its own merits but, when pitted against Manning's history of fine efforts, has a bit of trouble rising significantly above the pack. No matter. Fans will devour Land gleefully, while detractors will have trouble finding anything really significant to complain about. Not a bad lot for a guy's "sort of debut solo effort." And that brings us to the matter of "sort of debut." In March of 2006, the Japanese label Pony Canyon, Inc. released what was (technically) Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.'s actual debut album Solid State Warrior. Due to having business arrangements with two separate record companies Solid State Warrior was released stateside by Cordless Recordings as The Land of Pure Imagination. Three tracks from Solid ("What You Don't Know About the Girl," "Sleep Children," and "Till We Meet Again") were switched-out for three newer tracks ("Pray for the Many," "In the Name of Romance," and "Appleby").
AllMusic Review by J. Scott McClintock