Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mystery Trip

Magic Hero vs. Rock People
Magic Hero vs. Rock People

Normally I give local records two or three spins before I write about them. It doesn't usually take any more than that to find a few high points, a few suggestions for improvement, and reach a reasonable conclusion. My time is limited and if I don't spend a certain amount of time each week listening to 70's British rock on vinyl I get cranky and ill-disposed to say anything nice about music at all.

I've had this Magic Hero vs. Rock People CD for almost a month now and I keep trying to listen to it all the way through and then write a definitive review. I usually make it all the way to the end (and it's a monster, 20 tracks) without any idea of what to say. A lot of thought and effort went into this record. The instrumentation is dense and varied, but beautifully recorded. Whether it's old keyboards, string instruments, or mouth percussion, you can always tell what the sounds are even while the overall mix is quite deliberately blended and hazy. The vocals are equally well-rendered, but in a subtle way. It's only the presence of one song not sung by leader Donny Lang, the tone-deaf "Selfless Nameless Vanity," that proves by negative example how cool the singing is otherwise. This sort of layered production deserves multiple listens and careful analysis. There's bits of studio chatter, sampled speeches, tape-manipulated sections, and none of it seems accidental.

However the record isn't as much fun to get lost in the depths of as it could be, because the songs are melodically rote and rhythmically all identical to each other. With a few exceptions -- the surf instrumental "Rocketing Rhythms II" is peppy and the twee "The Only Road You're Gonna Find" would be a breakout track if it wasn't buried 19 songs into the sequence. Even though they're well crafted with waves of violin and movie-soundtrack organ and thoughtful lyrics, there's about eight too many songs like "One-Way Woman" and "Only a Wizard in the Wind" that have the same drab approach. There's also no variations in arrangements -- the songs begin and end with all the same sounds, with nothing added or removed. The songs aren't distinct from each other because rhythmically they're all alike, with little melody coming from the vocals or the overdubs, and they aren't distinctive within themselves because there's never any changes. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, outro, every time.

Lang has the restraint to not end every song with a lengthy jam over the verse chords. Some of the shorter material (opener "After the Game") is among the most appealing, because the riffs don't outstay their welcome. There's some talent and a lot of fine musicianship buried in the clouds of sound here, but it's a lot easier to record variations on the same song 15 times than write 4 or 5 totally distinct compositions. Having crafted themselves a sound that's worthwhile and their own, Magic Hero vs. Rock People next have to fill it in with stronger songs that can stand on their own, without the Technicolor production. Playing live shows and shaping their next release for 7" vinyl, as they're now doing, should help. Theirs is a fight worth waging.

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