[1 July 2007]
The Magic Numbers, the London band that made it big in the UK in 2005 off the back of a phenomenally likeable debut—what happened to them in the US? Plenty of people liked the songs they heard, it seemed to me, but the group’s Britpop-tinged throwbacks failed to ignite the same adoration they garnered back home. Again, it wasn’t commensurate with the group’s quality—songs like “Love Me Like You” and “Forever Gone” attest to that—just to the ease with which good groups can get lost in the sea of indie pop being released each year.
On paper, the group is a recipe for ‘60s-style pop splendour: brother-sister, brother-sister, long brunette hair and beards to complete the picture. Judging from all reports, the live show’s a winner, and with all their practice over the last few years, it can only have improved, right? You can imagine this music translating well on-stage, an all-together transcendence that is similar, you can imagine, to the effect achieved by Tim DeLaughter and his troop of robed singers.
Yet this sense doesn’t really come across on record—not on The Magic Numbers, and even less so on Those the Brokes. Even the cover image, a stylised image of the band looking very ‘70s and record cover-esque, hints at the shifted focus of the band’s second album. Instead of backwards-looking pop that out-Coldplays Coldplay’s initial, unpretentious melody-love, Those the Brokes retreats much further into the shadow of retro pop. It seems a willful move. The band’s deliberately turning back into the past, as if in rebuke of Britain’s current crop of mediocre guitar pop bands, so we get a crystallized recreation of ‘60s production values, sometimes at the expense of the depth of sound reproduction. The band thus sounds slightly veiled on record, making you both strain for resolution and wonder, again, how much better the group might sound live.
The overall effect on the new album is one of considerable mellowing of the Magic Numbers’ enthusiasm, but not in a bad way. As with their debut, the most upbeat moments are the catchiest (contributing to the reputation for sunny, carefree melody). There’s nothing quite as catchy as the trio of singles that propelled the debut to such heights in the UK, but we get close. “Take a Chance” chugs along with a perpetual smile, slipping easily in and out of Romeo Stodart’s smooth falsetto, and as with many of the Magic Numbers’ songs, the sunny likeability overlies a true sophistication. Sections with different ideas/instrumentation/texture flow into and over each other so seamlessly you hardly notice. It’s difficult to explain in writing, but wonderfully effective in practice. Similarly, opener “This Is a Song” is a slice of perfectly-minted guitar pop: as Stodard sings “Maybe it’s over, but over is not a word that you know” and heads into the chorus, you feel the rising momentum viscerally.
With the shifting emphasis and mellowed outlook, though, Those the Brokes naturally requires a little more patience than its predecessor. Longer songs, especially on the album’s leisurely second half, don’t push themselves onto the listener, and this has been interpreted by some critics as a shortcoming. But there’s nothing sloppy about the songwriting. The longest track, “Slow Down (The Way It Goes)”, stretches its simple melodic idea over almost seven minutes; that’s seven minutes to marvel every time the boy-girl harmony enters, unbelievably sweet. Having said that, the melody is milked for everything it’s got, and the extended, amorphous improvisation in the middle may strike some as directionless. The album is certainly more suitable for, say, a lonely Sunday afternoon than a Friday night.
It’ll be hard for Those the Brokes to get the rave reviews of the Magic Numbers’ first album, but there is a definite sense of reduced ambition and greater craftsmanship that is difficult to criticize. As the band continues to hone their outlook and experiment with different production values, there is no doubt they’ll continue to put smiles on our faces with their backwards-oriented but continually upward-looking songs.