[23 February 2009]
Magnetic Morning’s A.M. is, yes, a record that does sound best early in the morning. Put it on as dawn is breaking and it is a soundtrack to darkness slowly lifting away, small creatures beginning their own day, and coffee percolating. It’s the sound of those moments when you have just awoken and have begun your routine, but your brain is still living in its dream world.
Magnetic Morning is the songwriting duo of Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin and Interpol’s Sam Fogarino, joined by Jimmy LaValle (The Album Leaf), Josh Stoddard (The Still Out), and F. A. Blasco. Adam Franklin brings the most compelling ingredient to the table: his voice. Possessing one of the best and most beautiful (while still sounding gruff and pissed-off half the time) voices in rock, Franklin can manipulate any listener into a full forty-five minute bliss-out session. He’s also been intuitive enough in his career to consistently surround that voice with heavy, though not necessarily myriad, instrumentation. Even when it’s just a keyboard line being played behind him, it sounds as if it’s anchored at the bottom of the ocean, and that voice is trying to lift it up.
AM continues that tradition of precise, thoughtful arrangement. The band, including Franklin (who plays guitar, keyboards, and bass besides singing), sounds like it has been together for a decade. There’s a professionalism that is energizing rather than rote. Layers are constructed and then deconstructed, sometimes quickly. A synthesizer makes its way into a small portion of “No Direction”, sounding for a split second like Kevin Shields has entered the building, then disappears behind the guitar and drums, leaving a wisp of smoky memory. A guitar languidly flutters on “At a Crossroads, Passive” and it underscores a desperate quality in the lyrics: “I walk to the ends of the earth / For what it’s worth / But it never ends”.
What holds AM back from being a great record is it’s lack of reconciliation with what it wants to be. It’s atmospheric but yet it seems to want to be song-driven, perhaps even epically so. Because it never settles down in either camp, and also doesn’t make one big push towards the grandiose, it all sounds, well, a little hazy. It’s telling that the standout tune is a cover (Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”, handily translated from the German) and the best moments come from within songs, rather than the whole of a song itself. It’s slightly jarring. Magnetic Morning will start with a lilting melody and Franklin’s croon floating by like a soft prayer, break into a fairly strong chorus, pull back into a lull, and slowly fade out. It’s as if the band didn’t have enough intention.
Which is why A.M. works best in the subconscious. As a record for those in-between moments, when your brain isn’t quite connecting with anything, it has merit. Listening to the first and last thirty seconds prove the point. The opening track, “Spring Unseen”, sounds like a beginning was written, then scrapped. The closing track, “Athens 5”, chooses to stop rather than truly end. Perhaps once Magnetic Morning figures out where they want to be, what the listener should expect is something more than a pleasant trip with some great moments, which is what this is now. Maybe they’ll get a record that appeals to all the waking world as well.