I’m sure that you are familiar with the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where the Emperor swanned around butt-naked because he had been conned by an unscrupulous tailor. In this tale, the courtiers were terrified to inform said Emperor that his danglies were on show for fear of reprisal. It took the new kid on the block to point out that these magical new clothes that the boss man was sporting were not so innovative. It took an innocent child to burst the bubble of deception. Well, I am not exactly a child, but I hereby perform that function: As good as it is, Elefant’s new album Black Magic Show is nothing that hasn’t been heard before.
Let’s just straighten something out before we go any further. I like this record. I wasn’t sure at first. I had a few misgivings, but it has an infectious quality that sort of grows on you. However, I sort of like it despite myself; it’s like a shallow, dirty little secret that I harbour. It is like that ABBA album that I own, or the Bay City Rollers record that I have in storage. I like it notwithstanding the fact that it has no substance, that it is bubble gum for the 21st century.
As they are based in New York City, it would be too easy to compare them to other NYC darlings the Strokes. Indeed, this happened when Elefant’s debut, Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid, hit the streets in 2003. They are not alike. Where the Strokes emulate Lust For Life-era Iggy Pop, Elefant flirt with those that tried (and failed) to copy David Bowie in the ‘80s. I also found it really difficult to listen to this CD without it conjuring impressions of Suede, and as evidence for this I offer you “My Apology”, which could easily be mistaken for a Butler/Anderson composition.
Black Magic Show has really lush production values. Most tracks are full to the bursting point of really well crafted and rounded off recorded digital sounds. This has the effect of making it all border on sounding like a New Romantic record. This happens particularly on the more jolly tunes like “Don’t Wait” and “Sirens”. However, for the most part it just sounds like Suede. Sure, the album is full of really catchy melodies, infectious grooves, and Epicurean sonic landscapes. The music is all very O.C.-ready. That is to say that none of it would be out of place on the soundtrack of whatever the hit TV show is this week. Case in point is “Uh Oh Hello”, which sounds like it was lifted directly from a Vodafone commercial. I wouldn’t get very good odds on it being used for some cell phone company at some point in 2006.
The best songs on this album are the ones where they just don’t bother to be original. The aforementioned “My Apology” and “Uh Oh Hello” sound like Suede (are you getting the subliminal message yet?) and the Lightning Seeds respectively, and “Lolita” borrows heavily from Elastica. That said, nothing contained herein could be accused of being deep and thoughtful. Diego Garcia’s lyrics promise to share with you experiences from other cultures gleaned from his erudite mind, but actually deliver fist-in-the-air stompers more akin to Gary Glitter than Nabokov.
So, no matter what you hear from the PR spinners, this album is not groundbreaking. It is not a work of magic. In fact, any attempt to portray it as such would indeed require a conjuring trick of its own. It is quite good pop music. I would even go so far as to say it was good. It is probably worth your hard-earned cash, but you shouldn’t get swept along on the coat tails of the oncoming hype.
// Notes from the Road
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