Music

Aqualung: Magnetic North

There's a refreshing aspect to the personal sound of Magnetic North that many artists, when being so introspective, completely neglect: the soul need not be permanently tortured.


Aqualung

Magnetic North

Contributors: Sara Bareilles, Alison Sudol, Kelly Sweet, Matt Hales
Label: Verve Forecast
UK Release Date: 2010-04-26
US Release Date: 2010-04-20
Website
Artist Website
Amazon
iTunes

Back in the mid-'90s, the Smashing Pumpkins released a single for Tonight, Tonight that featured no less than six B-sides, all of which were quietly-performed demos from the Mellon Collie sessions. While this may not have been terribly surprising given Billy Corgan's high opinion of his own art and his propensity at the time to release every song he ever recorded, it was awfully difficult to deny the appeal of this little mini-album, especially as a counterpoint to the bombast and melodrama that were the Pumpkins' calling cards. There's an appeal to hearing a musician offer humility, the sense that we're seeing the human side of their artistry, allowing us in turn to relate to the feelings they're expressing just a little bit more intimately.

"California", the eighth track on Aqualung's latest effort Magnetic North is less than a minute and a half long, and offers a sound similar to those Tonight, Tonight demos. The piano sounds like it's coming from the next room, the guitar is well-strummed but repetitive, and the entire thing is two short verses. And yet, it's one of the most perfect examples of hopeful longing I've heard in music this year. It's unpretentious, has a lovely melody, and doesn't stay long enough to overstay its welcome. Matt Hales (who is Aqualung) says his piece and waits for a response that we never get to hear.

"California" sounds so perfect and so vital for such a quiet, humble little song because it comes from a place that Hales might have been feeling, but not quite ready to explore yet. Shortly after writing the song, Hales and his wife actually did move to California, presumably to "make our 'big mistake' before we come undone", as he sings. Such honesty is what made those Corgan demos so appealing, and it's a similar honesty that Hales masters throughout Magnetic North.

It's a "write what you know" mindset that makes Magnetic North the success that it is; Hales' previous album Words and Music twisted that formula slightly into "write what you knew", as he re-recorded, covered, and slogged his way toward an unconvincing return to his early days. That album's best moments were its new tracks, unappreciated and unceremoniously shoved to the end of that album; fortunately, it is the style of those tracks that continues straight through to Magnetic North.

There's a refreshing aspect to the personal sound of Magnetic North that many artists, when being so introspective, completely neglect: The soul need not be permanently tortured. First single "Fingertip", with nicely placed "doodoot" vocals courtesy of Kelly Sweet, is a joyous ode to the pursuit of love. Opener "New Friend" is one of those rare lyrics that works on a literal or a metaphorical level, and it does so by not taking itself too seriously -- the "new friend" in question could be a love interest or, say, an iPad. In fact, it wouldn't be a bit surprising to hear "New Friend", with its double-pronged attack of Beach Boys melodies and gospel-soul ornamentation, in the background of Apple's latest ad campaign. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

Sure, there's no shortage of shoegazing to be found here. Hales has never been a particularly upbeat artist, and while the "ups" sound higher here than they've ever been, the album is still predominantly gentle, a little strange, and quite beautiful. "You're my compass, my magnetic north...So I'm begging you to stay true," he sings on the title track and album closer, with only his ever-present piano supporting his alternately broken and soaring vocal. Hales' voice has never been a traditionally strong one, but his this-close-to-lazy phrasing works in his favor as he offers something like a calculated stream-of-consciousness vocal. "Sundowning" is just as strong, an early song devoted to the complicated process of repairing an incident that left a scar -- for such an early track, it's beautifully patient, and Sweet's harmonies are just enough counterpoint to enhance but not overtake the melody. He goes a little over the edge in the indulgent, soupy "Remember Us", but indulgence is a forgivable offense when baring your soul.

Word is that Hales almost retired from music a couple years ago. The only reason he's back is because these songs just couldn't be contained, almost as if they forced themselves out, and it's easy to see why. Magnetic North is a restrained but instantly memorable album from a man who's not yet done growing as an artist. With this sort of trajectory, it'd be a shame to see him stop now.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image