The Magic Numbers

Washington City Paper | October 20, 2005
Whether you like hype-bedecked London popsters Magic Numbers may depend on whether you liked Ken Jennings. The Jeopardy! champ, who fell into obscurity relatively quickly (what, no shared bunks with William Hung on The Surreal Life?), struck me as both preternaturally clever and appealingly sincere. The same can be said of Magic Numbers, whose "Mornings Eleven"--the opening track on the band's self-titled debut long-player--is a capsule history of pop tropes. After a fade-in opening with a guitar-and-bass thrum only slightly less repetitive than your average 5-year-old at Toys "R" Us, the crotch-gripped voice of Romeo--yes, Romeo--Stodart kicks in; a guitar trips precisely up the scale, and it all fades out after a minute and a half. It seems like the most economical pop song ever. But then: "Bah-buh-bah-buh-bah-buh-bah-buh-baaah/Ooo, ooo ooo…" We're at an Atomic Age prom night, everyone's waltzing, and when Romeo sings, "I would," and a woman's voice chimes in with "die for you," you can almost set your watch to the "Whoa-oh-oh-oh" that follows. Heck, the song would be textbook-perfect if it weren't for the chorus: Romeo, sister Michele Stodart, and Angela Gannon's road-worn harmonies sound less like the Beach Boys and more like--gasp!--the Grateful Dead. The disc's style shifts a couple of times more after that (did I mention there's a banjo?), and the result often veers perilously close to a Queen epic. You'd expect those Deadheading voices to come back on the countrified "The Mule," with its lazy backbeat and velvet-shrouded guitar notes, but instead producers Craig Silvey and Romeo go for the eerie cultishness of male-and-female unison vocals. And, of course, this song's a shape-changer, too, with washes of instrumental anger topped by a jittery ax solo. "Forever Lost" combines chugging, born-to-be-kinda-wild strings with Romeo's understated, lovelorn vocals and, unexpectedly, Sean Gannon's cymbal crashes. The innocence of the chorus--"Don't let the sun be the one to change you baby"--disappears when the '60s become the '80s with the brooding line "Looks like it all went wrong." But it comes back. The foursome--almost too adorably, they're brother-sister pairs--and Silvey keep the energy and inspiration high, whether they're building a pretty Cobain-Drake hybrid on "Which Way to Happy" ("Make time to show me your scars"), making R&B with Liam Gallagher–esque vocals on "Don't Give Up the Fight," or mixing up a country/gospel/waltz on "Try." It's tempting to see this sort of eclectic fusion as music by the numbers, but these Numbers make you believe in the healing power of pop--in portion-controlled doses that, although they fade quickly, leave you with a warm glow.

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