[2 September 2010]
PopMatters Music Editor
It’s a given that making a strong first impression is one of the most important objectives for any debut album, but how to do so can be a tricky and complicated proposition. While any young act wants to do something that can help it to stand out, that hook can also pigeonhole a band long after it has outgrown its awkward early stages. For Magic Kids, their thrilling retro-pop revisionism on Memphis is what’ll get them noticed in the here-and-now, even if it could burden them later: Though many ‘60s-leaning bands claim the Beach Boys’ orchestral pop experimentation as an influence, few take that source of inspiration and run with it like Magic Kids do, considering the full complement of bounding keyboards, resounding tympanis, swelling strings, and smooth falsettos that they put to good use on their summery-themed songs.
But there’s more to Memphis, named after the quintet’s hometown, than a redux of Pet Sounds, as if that were possible. The reason why Magic Kids might have some staying power is that they pack Memphis full of singles with their own unique spirit and energy that wouldn’t shine through if they were only imitating what came before them. Part and parcel of Magic Kids’ precocious musicianship is their knack for creating stick-in-your-head songs that get in there in less than three minutes flat, but stay around much longer. The band’s post-teen symphonies are so rich and layered that they seem to stretch time, seeming complete and fully developed despite their short-and-sweet dynamics. In fact, there’s such an embarrassment of riches that two of the catchier numbers—the aptly titled “Candy” and “Little Red Radio”—aren’t even official singles.
Released on an earlier seven-inch, “Hey Boy” makes the biggest splash, with give-and-take vocals in a back-and-forth between what sounds like an admonishing all-girl choir—“Hey boy, where’s your girlfriend? / She needs your attention,” it begins—and lead singer Bennett Foster that’s timeless in a puppy-love romance kind of way. As head-bobbing and finger-snapping as it is, “Hey Boy” features a lush instrumental arrangement that accompanies Foster’s soaring delivery, with so many sparkling synths, honking horns, shaken bells all compressed into a track that’s barely longer than two minutes. The backing singers add another level to “Hey Boy” both in form and content, driving the song as they take the fore to plant seeds of doubt in Bennett’s guileless affections: “Is she telling lies?,” they ask, overwhelming the main vocal line, on which Bennett can only muster a muted, “No, no, she wouldn’t do that.” It’s a nifty trick for a band that’s relatively green to pull off a piece that has so many facets to it and can appeal to listeners in different ways, whether as a quick-and-easy would-be hit or an expertly crafted pop composition.
Opening number “Phone” sets that kind of vibe right from the get-go, exuding a warm-and-fuzzy pop innocence (“I’ll be waiting here right by the phone,” the chorus goes) that’s too lively and spirited to come off like stale nostalgia. What makes Magic Kids akin, then, to contemporary luminaries like labelmates Girls and latter-day Belle and Sebastian is a confidence in their own neoclassical pop that doesn’t need to take their influences from yesteryear all-too-literally. “Skateland” begins with cooing vocals, twinkling piano, and some understated horns and strings that could’ve been delivered by the way-back machine, but eventually picks up steam before a thrashy guitar squiggle breaks up the old-timey daydream. Along those lines, the Girls comparison seems to be the most apt, as Magic Kids create something with flashback appeal, but also give you a sense that their patchwork approach couldn’t be anything but contemporary and of the time.
If there’s one thing that Magic Kids could to finetune a little, it’s the sequencing and pacing of Memphis, since the singles-worthy ear candy comes so fast and furiously that some of the ditties on the second half of the album get lost in the shuffle. “Good to Be” and “Sailing” could hold up well as stand-alone tracks on a randomized playlist, but they end up seeming too frantic where they appear on the album. They’re the sonic equivalent of taking another hit of something that’s a little too sweet when you’re already on a sugar-high.
A few more deliberate changes of tempo and mood would even out Memphis more, which Magic Kids give a nice tease of with mellow ballads “Hideout” and “Summer”. The back-to-back tracks are sandwiched between the breakneck “Superball” and “Hey Boy”, offering a nice breather between the bouncy tunes, like when Foster channels the baroque affectations of Dirty Projectors mainman David Longstreth on “Hideout”. “Summer” has even more tricks up its sleeve and does a good job showing them off, making more room for the resonant strings, harpsichordy keyboards, and crisp percussion to breathe before fading out to a jazzy, syncopated interlude. When you hear a song with the intricacy and deft touch that “Summer” has, it sounds a lot like Magic Kids have become all grown up and found their own identity before you even realized it.