Music

Cuddle Magic: Info Nympho

The album has its moments, but none more powerful than when it considers the ramifications of suicide.


Cuddle Magic

Info Nympho

Label: FYO
US Release Date: 2012-03-06
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“I can’t write a song with Vic Chesnutt gone,” goes the very opening line to the first track of Brooklyn/Philadelphia chamber pop collective Cuddle Magic’s third album, Info Nympho, but the song is more than just a moving ode to the late American singer-songwriter who died by his own hand. The song, “Disgrace Note”, is a touching, melancholic and troubling elegy to a variety of historical figures or entertainers who have all committed suicide. From jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler to poet Richard Brautigan to actress and fashion model Margot Hemingway to author David Foster Wallace to photography pioneer George Eastman, the song longingly and depressively namechecks a wide raft of celebrities who have succumbed to their own inner demons.

It’s a stark way to start off an album, given the macabre subject matter, but the song is moving -- a tribute, in many respects, to remembering those who simply lost the will to live. “Disgrace Note” mourns the empty hole left by these very talented individuals, and laments the artistic and cultural loss that the evils of taking your own life has, not just on friends and loved ones but to the artistic community as a whole. Granted, the song dips itself into a morbid fascination with the subject matter -- “Nikki Bacharach in a plastic bag / Phil Loeb never rose from his overdose”, etc. -- but there’s a lazy feeling of hope that permeates the song, whose melody borderlines on the uplifting thanks to its soulful jazz-based backing. Recalling the work of Illinois-era Sufjan Stevens, at least in its most orchestrated moments, “Disgrace Note” isn’t much of a disgrace. It’s simply a song that causes one to pause and reflect. And it is the very best thing about Info Nympho, which careens unevenly from the sublime to the silly. How silly? Well, how ‘bout having a song named “Moby Dickless” for starters, if not a song simply about hoarding material goods?

Info Nympho was lovingly recorded using nothing but analog equipment (the vinyl LP version was even mastered in analog), and it is the result of a grassroots Internet campaign where the band was able to raise more than $10,000 to finalize the making of the album after soliciting donations online. You get this sense that this is an album that was funded by the fans and made for the fans – without a great deal of consideration to actually, you know, winning over new fans. Case in point: there’s a bit of recycling on Info Nympho, probably meant to best reward those who have followed the career trajectory of the various band members. Bridget Kearney, who also plays bass in both Boston’s lounge jazzy Lake Street Dive and the bluegrassy Joy Kills Sorrow, contributes the song “Jason” here. The thing is, the song has already appeared on This Unknown Science, the 2011 album from Joy Kills Sorrow, where it gets a more nimbly guitar-picking arrangement. The version of “Jason” on Info Nympho is actually inferior, partly because those who have followed Kearney, like me, have probably already worn out the Joy Kills Sorrow version, and you can’t really improve on the mournful near perfection of that take. Additionally, the arrangement here is just too, well, clever. It lurches and stops and starts, and is meant to be meaningful and pensive, but it actually doesn’t go anywhere.

Speaking of cleverness, the lyrics on Info Nympho range from ingenious (let’s invoke “Disgrace Note” again here) to too-cunning-for-their-own-good. For instance, “Autobiographies” gets bogged down in some silly nonsensical wordplay: “Singing ballads / To my salad / Isn’t valid / Getting paged / While on stage / Makes me age.” This is strange because the song, which comes more than midway through the album, makes it seem like Cuddle Magic don’t really have much to say, which seems unlikely given the relative strength of that aforementioned opening track. Part of the problem might be that Cuddle Magic lists 10 members as being in the band in the liner notes, and there are multiple songwriters in the group. Cuddle Magic, thus, is a bit of a democracy, which means that the lesser ideas tend to sometimes flow through and there’s a real “anything goes” kind of attitude to the haphazard and ropey nature of the arrangements.

While Info Nympho can sometimes come across as trite and too cute, the individual parts make up for the lack of a greater whole. The band is co-ed, with male and female singers, which creates some valid opportunities for gorgeous harmonies here and there from dueting genders. The songs on the latter half of the record also rise above some of the attempts at showcasing musical muscle and agility (see “Jason”) that plague the first half. And, on a completely unrelated note, there’s also a certain mellow vibe to the record, which creates a sense of pleasantry for those who think that jazzy pop should go down as smooth as a girlie drink. However, given the number of musicians the band is working with and the collective talents of each and every one of them, Info Nympho also could have been a lot stronger.

Still, for those who miss the celebratory jazz pop of mid-period Sufjan, the album will do the trick in a jiffy. It’s just that there is so much potential to be found here, and it’s a little too bad that the rest of the album didn’t follow the lead of “Disgrace Note” in marrying quality songcraft and musicianship. Info Nympho seems like a bit of a riddle, in both title and how it unfurls in a rather lumpy fashion. It is an album of pieces that don’t quite always fit together, but you can’t help but admire the possibilities. At its best, Info Nympho is an arty album that doesn’t sidestep having hummable songs. At its worst, Info Nympho is a bit pretentious or even downright inane. Which is to say that making an album full of songs as wonderfully emotional as “Disgrace Note” is something Cuddle Magic should work towards. With its filler, failed lyrical ambitions and reused material, Info Nympho seems more like a band not sure what the next step is, which is all the more ironic when you consider that the album really is at its early peak when it dwells and wool-gathers about the implications of quitting. The album has its moments, but none more powerful than when it considers the ramifications of suicide. And it does so rather gracefully, if not almost masterfully.

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