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Little Wings: Magic Wand

Rob Horning

Little Wings

Magic Wand

Label: K
US Release Date: 2004-08-17
UK Release Date: Available as import

It's a testament to his talent that Kyle Field, who has been releasing albums as Little Wings since 2000, doesn't attract more dismissive ridicule for his faux naif idiosyncracies, his semi-falsetto warbling style and his unrepentant hippiecisms, his songs about babbling brooks and secret canyons and child-like wonderment. His authority and sincerity are unassailable; his performances repel cynicism with the musically courageous chances he takes and the hopeful enthusiasm he makes palpable. Even on his records you can tell that he doesn't care if people laugh at, and so they never do, except when his goofiness -- his fondness for silly costumes and Captain Kangeroo-ish shtick -- constitutes a clear invitation.

This 11-song collection finds Field in an especially exploratory mood, setting aside the pithy brevity and quirky tunefulness that characterized his earlier work for long, near dirges that worry a single ruminative chord progression -- often banged out with rudimentary skill on a piano -- to the breaking point while torrents of puzzling, half-mumbled words are poured out in a few of Field's characteristic singsong phrasings. This is true of the title track and especially the seven-minute "So What?" that meanders through several twists and turns without fundamentally changing its original patterns, varying just enough to keep from being wearying. The song continues to embrace more and more experience, and it would likely be overwhelming without the anchoring repetition, holding it together, giving it comprehensible form. This is in keeping with his peculiar ability to make optimism tangible, to make it real by giving it shape, a shape so stubbornly persistent you can't resist believing in its inevitability. The song gently flows like water through a canyon, seemingly limpid until you think of all the rock it's eroded.

The spare opening tracks, "Everybody", "Whale Mountain", and "I Am with You," sound so similar that they form a seamless trilogy, in which Field discharges a series of evocative propositions for self-definition, with a quick detour describing someone's professional music career. Though extremely capable and in consummate command of his talent, Field could never be considered "professional", in the sense that he goes through the suitably demanded motions to make a living. It sounds more as though he is following a calling, or indulging a compulsion. On these songs, Field seems completely unconcerned about melody, slipping instead into a kind of Joni Mitchell mode, circa For the Roses, in which song structures are subject to the feints and pauses and twists of thought rather than the other way around. He seems to be picking his way carefully through a dark forest with a flashlight, making his steps carefully but unafraid to follow unknown paths heading further in.

Other songs find Field trying out some new things: "Laugh Now" is a steel-drum laden excursion into extreme mellowness, as though he weren't as mellow as could be imagined to begin with -- Little Wings might be the only band that is out-rocked by Bread. And "White Sky" has Field experimenting with what he calls "a refined high realism" in his singing, which seems to mean he's totally unfettered his falsetto and decided to keep whatever crazy cracked yodeling came out in his reaches for unfamiliar or recalcitrant notes. While the results could have been a lot worse, this is an experiment that doesn't really succeed. The album's most rollicking and immediately memorable track is certainly its slightest, the playful "Uncle Kyle Says", a song for children full of light-hearted, self-deprecating jokes and with a familiar, winning melody that wouldn't be out of place on a Raffi album. I suspect that if parents played Little Wings for the kids instead of Raffi, it would serve as an altogether acceptable substitute, and the children would probably grow up to thank them for it, or if not, they may find themselves with a more open-minded, wondrous attitude towards life without really knowing where it came from.

Throughout the record, Field's songs feel very close to their original improvisation without feeling unfinished or half-baked; they feel complete without seeming closed off, and their yearning, searching qualities are capable of haunting you even when you have no idea what in the world he could be searching for.

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