Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Records In Review: The Magic Numbers--The Magic Numbers

Laid-back old-school popsters The Magic Numbers, fronted by Trinidad-born Romeo Stodart, are a current Brit cause celebre, having recently won Mojo's Best New Act award, beating out, among others, one Rufus Wainwright (whose first album came out seven years ago). My copy of their debut cd sported a review snippet from said magazine, along the lines of this being destined to be "the" album of 2005. And the British music press wonder why Americans laugh at them. Oh, sorry, I forgot: The Scissor Sisters are the best pop band in the world.

This is an album that I was born to hate. It's wimpy, with lovey-dovey lyrics, '60s hippie harmonies, a twangy and occasionally cornball lead singer, and only slightly more musical tension than Mannheim Steamroller. But I kind of like it. And that bothers me. Big time.

It's not perfect by any means. The album's over an hour long, and would be better at forty-five to fifty minutes with the excision of a few songs, as the second half's got an awfully slow pace. The harmonic bolt is shot by the time you get two-thirds of the way through. But there's stuff to like here, too. The basic three-piece set-up plus melodica(!) is augmented by some very nice (and beautifully articulated) harmony and duet vocals, and the band dynamic is urbane in a good way, with the soft-attack bass generally acting as the linchpin--at least for the more up-tempo tracks. A number of the songs, even the so-so ones, drift off into little sidebars that keep you interested, and there's also some very nice and subtle shifts in mood and texture, as in the gentle duet "I See You, You See Me" and also "Forever Lost." Not a lot of histrionics here, and that's a plus.

I try not to read stuff about anyone I'm going to review, but I note from second-hand reports that The Mamas And The Papas have been cited as ancestors. I don't know that much of them other than the obvious, and wouldn't admit it if I did, but I can't really see it, to be honest. The influence I pick up a lot here--I kid you not--is The Strokes. Listen to the tracks "Long Legs," "Forever Lost" and the big pop tune "Love Me Like You," imagine distorted guitars, fuzzy vocals and an inflexible rhythm section, and there you go. They certainly use the same kind of pre-Beatle motifs as their bread-and-butter. The Numbers do the slow stuff too, though, and most of it's good, like the chord-wandery "Which Way To Happy" and the incredibly still duet "Wheels On Fire" (no, not THAT one). The '60s road leads Mr. Stodart into downtown Cheezeburgh a few times, unfortunately: the doo-woppy break in opener "Mornings Eleven" is hard to take, and "Don't Give Up The Fight" sounds like a bad imitation of The Style Council (minus the 'tude).

The Magic Numbers will grow on you like the pervasive fungus that I'm sure it is, so don't look it in the eyes, or you'll never escape. Now, how's that for a mixed metaphor? Recommended, if you can get past the first couple of listens.

P.S. I've just noticed that omnipresent allmusic reviewer S.T. Erlewine has gone apoplectic beaters on the album in a thesis-length piece. Wow.