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Sometime during the lost years between my two marriages, I found myself in Philadelphia dating an English art student whose family had settled in Tennessee. Her father was an old India hand, a former polo player and tiger hunter, and to call him opinionated would be a colossal understatement. I once made the mistake of refusing a postprandial sherry at his table, after which he looked at me coolly and said, with the utmost solemnity, “In India, all the teetotalers died.”
The old fellow was pretentious and off-putting, but I liked him anywaywhich is exactly how I feel about English post-rock outfit Piano Magic. Piano Magic’s musican artsy-fartsy conjunction of the bucolic and the electronic that can be described as Belle and Sebastian meets Kraftwerkencapsulates everything I find objectionable about ambient pop: It’s snooty, it’s difficult, and you can’t dance to it. And don’t get me started on the name, which brings to mind a pair of not-so-fabulous Baker boys, toupees askew, banging out “Liberace Boogie” on twin Steinways in some faded cocktail lounge in Des Moines.
Despite its many liabilities, Piano Magic has grown on me like space goo on that old derelict at the beginning of The Blob. In fact, I have to admit that the bandactually multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Glen Johnson and a constantly revolving cast of musical collaboratorshas turned out to be one of my happiest discoveries of this admittedly cursed year.
Piano Magic’s indifference to the traditional pop-song format, its fondness for placing twee-as-twee-can-be spoken-wordish voices atop chilly electronica, and its fearless forays into the darkling woods of art rock, if approached in the right spirit, are like an Outward Bound course for your ears. Why, I haven’t felt so happily challenged by a new album since that Yuletide long past when my younger brother, giddy with the holiday spirit to be found in numerous long-neck bottles of Yuengling Porter, subjected the entire family to a round-the-clock marathon of Naked City’s Torture Garden.
And now is the perfect time to explore Piano Magic’s electropastoral charms, because the group has not one, but two, new records out. The first, the two-disc Seasonally Affective: A Piano Magic Retrospective 1996-2000, gathers the band’s numerous singles for a dizzying array of tiny labels with some cool rarities, including a track recorded for a Dutch Christmas compilation (it’s great) and a song contributed to a Spacemen 3 tribute album (it’s even better). As if that weren’t enough, Piano Magic’s new label, 4AD, has just released the band’s soundtrack to Bigas Luna’s film Son de Mar.
Like most great musical surprises, Seasonally Affective sneaks up on you slowly. I went from undisguised loathing of the album to a grudging appreciation for its “few good tracks” to admitting to myself in a 12-step kind of way that I was powerless over the damn thing towell, no doubt I’ll soon be forcing copies on strangers in airport parking lots. From the hypnotic krautrock-inspired minimalism of “General Electric With Fairy Lights” (which starts out sounding like a meltdown warning at a nuclear power plant and then gets, well, even more depressing) to the sublime pop of “I Am the Sub-Librarian” (which combines lovely tinkling bells and spooky aqualung-like exhalations with the prettiest damn “da-da-da-dah”s you’ve ever heard), the album covers an amazing amount of aesthetic ground with remarkable ease.
Johnson’s influences encompass everything from Amon Düül (dig the percussive dronefest “Industrial Cutie”) and Joy Division (note the attenuated bass line and martial drumming on “Non-fiction”) to, I swear, the Alan Parsons Project, which you can hear sneaking in at the back end of “The Biggest Lie.” Add some baroque orchestral hoo-ha (the majestic “French Mittens”), a little melancholic guitar pop (the wonderful “There’s No Need for Us to Be Alone”), and even some honest-to-God prog rock (the quasi-Middle Eastern “Amongst the Books, an Angel”), and what you’ve got with Seasonally Affective is a veritable White Album for the ambient set. Why, there’s even a snippet of real piano magic (on the Martin Cooper-composed “Magnetic North”).
But what Johnson does best is create staticand static-y: one of the “instruments” he uses is a shortwave radiomusical spaces inhabited by voices that sound as disembodied, if not nearly so gloomy, as the ones in the later plays of Samuel Beckett. Johnson, who has described these haunting monologues set to music as best suited for “late at night just as [you’re] dozing off,” has a knack for finding female collaborators whose voices are so adorable they make you want to hug them. On “Wrong French,” for example, he sets Raechel Leigh’s schoolgirlish vocals atop a sustained keyboard drone and the sound of falling rain. The result is mesmerizing: simultaneously lullaby-delicate, sexy (whenever I hear Leigh say, “And I’m too tiny for a heart this big/It swells like an ocean/It’s breaking the jail of ribs,” I think I’m going to swoon), and ever-so-vaguely sinister. Elsewhere, Leigh delivers the snug-by-the-hearthside idyll “Angel Pie/Magic Tree,” Jen Adam sighs her way through the slinky, guitar-driven “The Sharpest Knife in the Drawer,” and Hazel Burfitt sing-speaks the frosty, Charlie Brown-themed “Wintersport/Cross Country.”
Johnson doesn’t always rely on the prim, virginal voice of his female accompanist du jour, however. “There’s No Need for Us to Be Alone” features Hefner frontman Darren Hayman, and past recordings have enlisted the Bitter Springs’ Simon Rivers and the Wisdom of Harry’s Peter Astor. Occasionally, Johnson even handles the vocals himself, as on the marvelously evocative “Sketch for Joanne.” Over tape hiss and a slow-as-molasses rhythm, he quietly tells a quotidian tale: “Joanne comes around with a radio and absinthe/We start the afternoon with Polish Xmas songs on shortwave/She laughs as we burn the first shot, the green flame/I love Joanne.” It’s all so wonderfully atmospheric, so redolent of a gray day in some wintry European city, that it practically hurts, and if Johnson doesn’t dazzle you with his music, he’ll do it with his ability to make the prosaic seem absolutely enchanting. Just check out “The Canadian Brought Us Snow,” a midtempo number that benefits from the full-band treatment: “The Canadian brought us snow and Lucky Strikes for John to smoke/A Thursday night with powercuts/In mountain socks, burning books/We watched the Jetsons for too long/Saw robots in our sleep/Naval lights from Amsterdam/Through the kettle steam/The Jesus glow of Calor Gas/Illuminates the frosted glass.”
The track is the perfect Piano Magic moment: hushed and intimate, chilly on the outside but warm as a roaring fireplace on the inside. Johnson’s particular genius lies not so much in his ability to domesticate electronica as in his ability to use electronica to illuminate the domestic. Piano Magic makes trance music to break out of your trance to, and Seasonally Affective is as good an evocation of everyday revelations as any I’ve ever heard.
After holing up for a long while in the Space Age thatched-roof cottage that is Seasonally Affective, I was more than a little underwhelmed by Piano Magic’s ho-hum soundtrack to Spanish filmmaker Bigas Luna’s Son de Mar. Which is odd, because you’d think that an ambient outfit like Piano Magic would be ideally suited for scoring films.
I don’t want to suggest that the disc’s six untitled pieces aren’t all eminently listenable, in a soundtrack-to-a-film-by-Spain’s-second-best-known-director-after-Almodóvar sort of way. But the terrible truth of the matter is that amputating both the industrialism and the tweeness from Piano Magic’s music, which is what Johnson has done here, is like cutting the arms off Jet Li. What remainsa few sparse themes accompanied by lots of lapping waves, some clanking buoy bells, and many, many ticking clockssimply isn’t as oddly spellbinding as your average Piano Magic fare. Son de Mar sounds like Pink Floyd without what my English ex-girlfriend would have called “the tasty bits.”
That said, the two longer compositions that close Son de Mar have their peculiar charms. The first is a nine-and-a-half-minute piece of trance-induction that lulls and soothes without ever becoming aural narcotic, its seaside pastoralism undercut here and there by what sounds like the closing of a giant pair of scissors. The second combines some nifty polyrhythmic percussion with James Topham’s doleful strings and Angele David-Guillou’s whispery vocals to slowly build an imposing wall of cool Moorish sound.
Still, I’ve tried to imagine the visuals that this music is supposed to accompany, and all I’ve come up with are banal images of anguished lovers, train trips through the sunlit countryside, rustic villages, and kerchiefed peasants shaking their fists at the uncomprehending heavens. In short, lots and lots of stuff that makes me want to never, ever visit Spain. CP