Though it’s based on a simple pun, Barbara Manning’s 20-minute epic “The Arsonist Story,” which kicks off her new 1212 (Matador), is perhaps the strongest work yet from the San Francisco singer-songwriter. The theme–alienation–is one of Manning’s old favorites, but here she moves beyond introspection into storytelling, examining a youth gone wrong from several points of view, including that of his parents (hence the play on “arson” and “our son”). This triumph of ambition is just a symbol of Manning’s continued growth–she’s always had a way with melody, but the rest of her skills just keep improving. Supported by bassist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino (of Giant Sand and now Calexico) she sings with assured ease; and although there are some pretty flourishes, such as the mariachi horns on “Stain on the Sun,” the album favors spare, efficient production. As usual, Manning has supplemented her originals with a bevy of smart covers (Richard Thompson, the Bevis Frond, Tom Lehrer, Amon DŸŸl, and the Deviants)–but whereas I used to think they were to cover up a dearth of ideas, I now realize they’re an organic part of every album’s conception. Manning’s as unpredictable as ever, but it’s never been easier to listen to her. She’ll perform solo. Friday, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600. Saturday, 6 PM, Reckless Records, 3157 N. Broadway; 773-404-5080. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Barbara Manning photo by Gerard Cosby.