The British band of the summer drop one of the debuts of the year; an unabashedly sentimental breath of fresh air as uplifting as it is unadorned. Prepare to succumb.
Having been bubbling gently since the late last year, when they cropped up on the prospective track listing of the new Chemical Brothers album and toured in support of HAL, the Magic Numbers went ballistic this summer, scoring a Top 20 hit with "Forever Lost" and then nudging into the Top Ten with this, their self-titled debut. Breaking cover has rarely been accomplished with such determined acumen, as they played virtually every summer festival going, culminating (although they're still hard at it as I type) in a performance at Glastonbury so gloriously life-affirming they left Coldplay for dead -- which is quite cute considering they once blagged their way into the festival on a hearse. On the back of this floods-and-lightning-defying performance they went on to sell over a 100,000 albums in six weeks.
That such success can be achieved in the current musical climate on nothing more than constant gigging and word of mouth is remarkable, although this becomes slightly less so once you consider the marvellous melancholy-tinged sunshine of their songwriting and singing, and the sheer joy they take in performing live. Having caught them twice before they meteored (hey, grant me a little satisfaction in catching a genuinely great band early for the first time in my life) and bought their T-shirt after the first gig, it still strikes me as impossible to convey how striking their emotional intensity is live; perhaps transported innocence captures a small aspect of it. When Angela entered on "I See You, You See Me", her voice quivering as though her heart were tearing silkily in her chest, I felt my own dissolve at the unbearably perfect poignancy of the moment. What is nigh-miraculous is that this regularly happens to hundreds of people simultaneously at their gigs; everyone shuts up during the quieter, more intimate bits of the songs, people grin at strangers in acknowledgement of the shared moment, starting to sway gently, and, as a Sunday Times journalist so accurately put it, you can actually feel the sluice gates opening up underneath the multitude as their cynicism drains out through their feet.
Right, having dealt first with the numbers and then with the magic, time to explain who the actual band are. The Magic Numbers are two sets of siblings: Romeo (vocals, guitar, banjo, piano) and Michele (backing vocals, bass, keyboard) Stodart who grew up in New York by way of Trinidad before moving to London and ending up right next door to Angela (vocals, melodica) and Sean Gannon (drums, aye). Romeo, who really is called that, writes most of the bittersweet love songs, which are then performed in three part harmony by the bunch of twentysomethings -- nobody should be capable of singing like Angela at only 21. Perhaps in deference to Romeo's well-traveled earlier youth, the range of influences on the Magic Numbers sound runs the gamut from soul, country and the joyous yearning of Brian Wilson, to '80s rock and pop; the vocal tone and harmonies of "Forever Lost" nail Air Supply to within an inch of their lives, and apparently all the band are huge Guns 'N Roses fans (despaireth not though, 'tis not really in evidence).
The songs are in general melody-led and simple but almost mercilessly affecting, with bass and guitar intermeshing and switching between chords, melody and embellishment as the three to four sections of each composition slot seamlessly together, woven into one by vocal interplay by turns delicate and impassioned, frequently stepping out into unhurried silence before building back up into irresistible tidal pulls that crest on little more than handclaps, Sean's subdued drumming and Michele buoyantly speeding bass lines. Both the release and the tension are emotional more than anything else, which is probably why I'm making such a hash of describing things, but it helps that Romeo can pen lines like "Before you let me go/ You really should have known/ That I'm a messed -- and used up/ Bruised and fucked up boy... who gets beat up just by looking at you" (from "The Mule") and then deliver them as though for the first time, with the object of his affections standing in front of his halting courage. I think that's the only time they swear, but it pinpoints his ability to choose the right words for the right moment; hearing two hundred people sing "I can feel this something/ Rising, rising/ In my veins" in hushed wonder along to "I See You, You See Me", gave me goosebumps unrivaled by anything since an entire festival audience sang "This is what you get/ When you mess with us..." at a silent, grinning Thom Yorke at 2am.
I am tempted to describe The Magic Numbers as the new Coldplay because they have in spades what originally made Coldplay so wonderful; that is, a complete lack of affectation and waves of translucent, warm vulnerability, along with hushed vocal lines that sink into your brain like hot ball bearings. Now of course Chris Martin and co. have become an ersatz U2, and you can hear him straining at every verse, chorus and adlib to fulfil his role as The Coldplay Singer, singing Coldplay Songs in the proper, anguished, Coldplay tones of voice. The Magic Numbers, for the moment, just sound like they're singing what they're feeling, because that's what feels right -- hopefully the second album, apparently already half-written, will not bear the hallmarks of touring strain and suddenly lifted expectations. In the meantime they've apparently introduced a cover of "There Is a Light Which Never Goes Out" into their sets; I would commit fluffy kitten genocide to hear this.
In a last minute bid to regain some semblance of objectivity -- this while the violin on "This Love", described by a Mr. Noel Gallagher as "a fookin' Stax classic", is gently slicing me into goo -- I should point out that the production on the record, which eschews trickery for clarity, occasionally sounds a little flat, to the point where I felt quite disappointed the first few times I heard it. However, repeated listening and a judicious hike in intake volume have now allayed these gripes, and I simply feel pity for all those who have yet to appreciate how much better The Magic Numbers are live. In a recent moment of wild-eyed Martinesque enthusiasm, Romeo claimed that "I can understand someone thinking they're in the best band in the world, because that's exactly how I feel about my band". Needless to say, they're not -- but trying to get anyone left lost for words by the fulfilled summer of their singing to give a good goddamn about that would, I feel, prove pointless too.