Album Review: my heels will never be soft by Dawn Manning

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The best music for music lovers often speaks to this restless heart we all seem to have. An itinerant spirit that keeps us constantly yearning for the next great lyric or melody, no matter how many we’ve encountered in our lives. Ambient music can fly in the face of this thought however. Instead of serving the restless heart, it soothes the flustered mind looking to make sense of everything around it. In that musical world, songs serve as extensions of moments in time, cataloging every errant sound and curious emotion. It’s less about the journey, more about the observation and what experiences unfold from there. For Dawn Manning’s style of ambient music though, observing is only half the journey her songwriting will provide for listeners.

The Richmond’s singer debut album my heels will never be soft, released this past January, reveals a collection of six songs that are joined together by her bold use of soundscapes and field recordings. So bold, these soundscapes and recordings often supersede any vocal or guitar strum. A cricket can feel louder than the strumming of a guitar, while the sound of nothing itself will even drown out Manning’s own voice in key moments. All of this allows her music to play out in a particularly compelling manner. Listeners are dropped into her musical forest with only their ears providing a sense of direction. Somewhere past the line of sight lies the source of the dulcet tones and poignant vocals. At times, it feels like they could be a world away, as footsteps even muffle the consonances. Other times, they’re within earshot, asking for just a few more steps forward. Each song extends the journey deeper into this musical wilderness, where the listener ultimately becomes struck with the same affliction as the singer: heels that will never be soft.

For all this traversing though, Dawn Manning’s music is still rooted in observation, taking snapshots of ideas and dissecting every part for further introspection. On “Humana Ex Machina,” she wrestles with the concept of mankind’s lost humanity in a short observation (“Mankind is an awful machine”), while “The Passage” has her bargaining with a universal concept (“If time would wait for me”). What sticks out here is that in the moments where Manning zooms in on specific thoughts, the musical journey feels accelerated. Yet when Manning grapples with a more robust collection of lyrics like in “Liminal Hush,” the movement feels halted. It’s an intriguing dichotomy where Manning pushes forward with so little, yet pauses with so much, further eschewing the orientation on her already mystifying sonic world.

my heels will never be soft is a triumph in this sense, yet it is also music that could still affect and thrill when stripped of all the layering and sounds. Manning’s voice is confidently delicate and she wields it as such, letting it float through the ether before dropping its full emotional weight on the listener. The music at play — strumming guitar, pacing piano, and even murmuring accordion — helps temper her voice, providing an easy cushion and a firm recoil depending on the way her musical breeze sways. At her core, Manning is an exceptional singer-songwriter, yet she has also learned how to amplify the intrinsic grandeur of her music with daring production and clever structure. And it’s this combination that makes Manning’s debut album so striking and worthy of both restless hearts and flustered minds.

Stream and purchase my heels will never be soft via Dawn Manning’s own Bandcamp page (link here).

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