For years San Francisco’s Barbara Manning has been a maddeningly inconsistent folk-rock outsider. Solo records like Lately I Keep Scissors and One Perfect Green Blanket were loaded with amazing material, but her lack of prolificacy and the occasional dud seemed to perpetually get in the way of her success. When she finally got a fairly steady band, she managed to release her worst record, last year’s weak Nowhere. I’m not sure what’s happened since, but Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows (Matador), her new album with the shuffling cast of characters known as S.F. Seals, triumphantly atones for her previous missteps while magnifying her past accomplishments. Not only does the album deliver consistently, but Manning’s writing, both melodically and lyrically, soars far above its previous heights. Her striking originals are fraught with numbing self-doubt, despair, and darkness, yet her confused narrators never ask for pity or wallow in moroseness. Amid irresistible hooks, the narrator in “Pulp” coldly explicates the complex reality of an abusive relationship, conveying self-disgust (“When you walked out on me / Part of me wanted to / Walk out on me with you”) and low self-esteem (“Kiss me where it doesn’t show / I’m bracing for another blow”). Liberated by the classic pop moves captured on Barbara Manning Sings With the Original Artists (Feel Good All Over), her voice lilts, swoops, and keens effortlessly, and her band brings her songs and some well-chosen covers (Faust, John Cale, Pretty Things) to life with no uncertain panache. It’s obviously her best record to date, and it just might be one of the best pop-rock records released by anyone this year. Chris Knox and Ashtray Boy open. Friday, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 276-3600.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Spencer Lloyd.