As great a band as Houndmouth is, you can’t fault Katie Toupin for itching to strike out on her own. After five years with the acclaimed alt-country band (where she shared the spotlight with three other musicians), she left in 2016 to pursue a solo career. That in itself isn’t unusual; the fact that she’s made a solo album that’s so wide-ranging – compared to the Americana stylings of her old band – is the pleasant shock that listeners will likely experience with her brilliant new record, Magnetic Moves.
Following last year’s lovely but less adventurous EP Moroccan Ballroom, Magnetic Moves is the sound of a singer/songwriter unafraid to take giant, ambitious leaps. The opening title track seems to be an affirmation of this new direction. “It’s about being bold and being brave,” she explains in the album’s press materials. “Using your magnetism to create the world you want to live in.” The song crashes in with a buzzy, mid-tempo power pop vibe that shows both a clear departure and a new beginning. “Are you dreaming of me? / I’ve been dreaming of you,” she belts in the song’s chorus and her delight in the new surroundings in palpable.
The eclectic nature of Magnetic Moves is a major factor in what makes it work so well. “Run to You” manages to incorporate reggae, folk touches, and a soaring chorus without ever seeming overly busy. The heart-on-sleeve balladry of “Someone to You” has a classic country sheen, and Toupin’s flawless pipes – think Amy Winehouse without the twitchy phrasing – give the song the feel of something tumbling out of a roadhouse jukebox.
But while cry-in-your-beer ballads are not necessarily a surprising turn for Toupin – given her previous band – there are deeply admirable shifts in style all over Magnetic Moves. “In Your Dreams” is a charming, McCartney-esque psych-pop shuffle. “The Hills Are Calling” is a marvelous pop gem with plenty of quirky arrangements that recall Harry Nilsson’s more imaginative moments. And in what’s perhaps the album’s emotional and sonic pinnacle, the ballad “Lost Sometimes” conjures up a deeply resonant gospel style with a grand piano and an intoxicating backing chorus that wraps around Toupin’s impassioned vocals.
The “big” moments on Magnetic Moves never seem to overstay their welcome, thanks to the album’s surprisingly even-tempered distribution of rockers, ballads, and everything in between. While “Lost Sometimes” is an almost operatic tear-jerker, a song like “I Need You” brings everything down to earth, as the song’s strongly melodic dream-pop is a perfect counterweight to the heavy stuff. By the same token, “I’m Gonna Let You Go” seems airlifted from a 1980s college radio station, with plenty of new wave touches and chunky, frenetic guitar work. It’s the sound of someone wildly dancing their cares away after a tough but liberating breakup.
Mixed by Grammy Award-winning Steve Christensen and assisted by multi-instrumentalist Scott Davis and percussionist Josh Blue, Magnetic Moves is a clean slate for the singer/songwriter, and the fresh faces seem to have worked wonders for her creativity. It’s also a deeply emotional album – something for which she doesn’t apologize. “I want everyone to feel okay just wearing their heart on their sleeve,” she says. Emotion and heartbreak have rarely sounded this good.