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Missed in Action

Stellar musicians hardly anyone has heard of -- and how come

"It's impossible to be a competent popular music critic," writes Dave Marsh, generally considered one of the top rock journalists in the land. So Dave, why don't you get a real job?

That's the problem, Marsh argues in the March issue of Rock & Rap Confidential: Being a competent crit is more than a full-time job. Reviewers typically receive 40 CDs or tapes each week; just to listen to all of them would take the equivalent of a full workweek. To actually write about one requires additional listens. And if the artist is an established act, time spent with previous work is necessary, too.

By way of example, Marsh, who authored the definitive Bruce Springsteen biography and sequel, admits he hasn't found time to hear Bruce's Unplugged EP. If the number-one subject of American music criticism gets such short shrift, what about all those "undiscovered" artists out there?

They're screwed.
Take a guy like Tom Manos. In July 1993 he released The Emperor's New Song, a classy mash of original music that he wrote, played, arranged, produced, packaged. A paralegal by day, Manos had put out some demos, even had a hit on Latin radio with the Spanish-language novelty "­Adi centss Fidel!" But The Emperor was an album A his manifestation of North American pop rock, a slab of such high quality the major labels would be proud to issue it.

No one noticed.
So in October he re-released it. Releasing the CD meant little more than consigning it to a few mom-and-pop shops, sending it to some record labels, mailing it to the press and radio. Re-releasing it simply meant writing a letter stating "It's being re-released." That didn't work, either. So he re-re-released it.

"I think musicians tend to look at it backward," Manos observes. "Like it's a foregone conclusion that you'll make it. But finally it dawns on you that you won't have a house on Star Island. Ultimately you will have rejection and you will be depressed. It used to be that a rejection letter would ruin my day, devastate me. Now it doesn't faze me. There's more to life than chasing that dream -- success is being happy with your music."

A Miami native, Manos began his musical career in high school after picking up a guitar at age ten and using his five years of piano lessons to imitate the Beatles. He played in a series of bands, including one with Mavericks drummer Paul Deakin. "The problem with the scene is you have to have a band to be out there playing," he says. "I've done that. I got tired of drunks telling me how great I played. The president of Sony isn't going to walk in off the streets at 3:00 a.m. in one of these dives. I'd rather be writing music, being with family, enjoying life."

Of course he also needed to make a living. "I saw an ad for a law firm and thought the legal world might be interesting," says Manos. "I took a paralegal course. I was working and going to school, but I graduated with a 4.0. It took away from my music."

Now it's putting back. At his house near the Falls, Manos built a recording studio. "The technology was intimidating at first, now it's become second nature," says the one-man band. "I bought a synth, went through a crash course in MIDI. Technically, all the demos I did [Manos had recorded some demos in the late Seventies while working at Henry Stone's legendary TK Studios in Hialeah] helped me learn my way around a studio. After '­Adi centss Fidel!' -- it was neat to hear it on radio -- it started dawning on me that I was not being taken seriously. I was losing credibility in the market I wanted to be in, and I was never taken seriously in the Latin market. (I hate that word, 'market.') I'm making progress. I have an A&R list, contacts, how it's all structured. Because I'm at a law firm, I can do it the correct way, by setting up a corporation and so forth."

The Emperor, certainly, was done the correct way, from the recording and mixing to the graphics and packaging. Picky critics might find it too mainstream, which is why it's the sort of record that should get the attention of an A&R person. A critic might be put off by the electronic -- that is, techno-enhanced rather than human-handed -- drive behind "The Power of Suggestion," the lead track on the second side of the cassette. That's a damn shame, because Manos does this sort of thing better than Transformer-era Neil Young. A tough-minded confessional, the tune sums up Manos's current status in the pop world. The slickness is superseded by the clever character development and even stronger comments about an original musician's inevitable dilemma, but with a bottom line that registers pure hope and the persistence that goes with it. And if they can't sell "Power," they could stock their coffers with the the radio-ready (sizzling-like-a-grease-fire guitar rips included) title cut.

Overall the album boasts an invigorating diversity of song structure and lyrics that deal with big themes like love and sociocultural concerns. Nonetheless, Manos reports, radio has turned a deaf ear to Emperor. "WVUM won't play it. They have a hipper-than-thou attitude, which is just as bad as the people in commercial radio. They won't play it unless it's 'alternative.' That's the problem I have with them. I'm an original artist, I'm local, the stuff is good, so it's like reverse discrimination -- 'alternative' discriminates against stuff like mine."

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