Magnapop: Mouthfeel

[9 February 2005]

By Jill LaBrack

Easter Eggs on Valentine's Day

And so we have the return of Magnapop. Nine years after their last studio record and seven years after an EP and tour were abruptly canceled (better known as ‘broken up’ to their fans), Magnapop comes out of nowhere to quietly put out Mouthfeel, one of the better warm-weather pop records you may have come across in, say, a decade or so. Even-handedly delivering 11 tight, exciting new songs without a dud in the midst, the band never forgets what it means to kick the hell back into a melody.

Magnapop, unfortunately, never got the attention they deserved the first time around, at least not in their home country. Caught in under-distributed overseas deals and domestic label messes, the band was forever just a bit shy of the break they deserved. Anyone who ever had the chance to see them play live, though, was instantly converted. Quite simply, they rocked. Linda Hopper would distractedly engage the audience, bouncing with her eyes on some unknown spot, smiling constantly, singing with her punkish, beguiling lilt. Shannon Mulvaney played bass until his fingers bled, a new tattoo on his body for every leg of their tour. David McNair looked the veteran behind the drum kit, calm and sweating, beating the hell out of his kit and occasionally appearing as if he might fall over from too many beers. Ruthie Morris, the co-focal point with Ms. Hopper, played guitar as if her very soul depended on it. It was hard to know who to look at. Everyone was just so good. Juliana Hatfield even wrote a song about Ruthie Morris being a great guitar player. Fans of this band were entranced. It was just always too bad that not enough people knew about them.

Mouthfeel should help to change that. Linda Hopper and Ruthie Morris, working with the updated personnel of Scott Rowe (bass) and Brian Fletcher (drums), have made an unabashedly sentimental and introspective pop record. The music falls a bit on the punk side of things for some songs, while others sound like an unholy but somehow blessed union of Guided By Voices and The Mamas and The Papas. This is a record informed by choices made, time gone by, and the realization that some faces will never be seen again. One can listen to it loudly on a hot summer’s day, singing along with nothing in mind but the great choruses, or with a microscope to the lyrics, lamenting those “separate familiar faces left behind” (“Pilgrim’s Prayer”) or considering the non-apologetic philosophy of “These are my sympathies / These are my broken pieces / They are the parts of me / I will not be releasing” (“Pretend I’m There”). One of the great strengths of this band, and this record, is the mix of the everyday with the transcendent. “Stick With Me” sounds like the frustration of someone dealing with an addict. The narrator in the song doesn’t seem to know which way to turn, whether to help or give up, both being a viable option. What brings the song to the listener are the details: “prescription drugs, Benzendrine and nicotine, Sudafed for the head, Easter eggs on Valentine’s Day”. It’s that last odd detail that drives it all home. Linda Hopper has never been one to expound on her lyrics. The songs on Mouthfeel prove that she doesn’t need to. The feeling is in the minutiae, and if you’re paying attention it will hit you. If you’re not, the rest of the band makes these songs so instantly cool that you’re driven to listen to them anyway. “Satellite” proves that Magnapop could teach a bit to even the newly improved Green Day, “California” features guitar work reminiscent of Dean Wareham, and “Elliott” updates R.E.M.‘s Reckoning without ever sounding contrived.

While the music world has moved forward since Magnapop’s last appearance, that does not mean the band should pass under your radar again. In a time when the Wrens and Mission of Burma can stretch and raise their heads, and Kristin Hersh has never stopped touring, save for when she’s pregnant or recording, Magnapop should be in your player or your iPod, alongside the DFA Compilation, Keith Jarrett, Bright Eyes and Joanna Newsom. This band is at the top of their game. Don’t let them pass you by a second time.

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