12 songs of blue eyed and funky pop-soul – and what a breath of fresh air What’s that About? is.
Unashamedly locking into a groove and riding it hard to extract maximum funk and feel from it, and with a clean and crisp production that allows absolutely no rough edges to go unnoticed – it’s truly a brave and refreshing set of decisions, which indicates a certain (justified) confidence.
Luckily, the vocals and musicianship are up to the task of living up to a spacious production.
Title track What’s That About? beautifully distillates what Magazine gap are all about – in particular the limber and flexible clarity of James Keen’s vocal, perhaps getting its most robust workout on this tune.
Recalling elements that are part Mick Hucknall, part David Gray, part James Blunt and part Steven Page (erstwhile of Barenaked Ladies) and part very much of its own thing, the Keen vocal possesses a precision to its delivery that cuts across the backing track with an aplomb that’s neither showy nor reserved – and yet you are never in any fear that it will truly cut loose and go off the rails. The control that’s in evidence and the close, rapid natural vibrato are aided by Keen’s imaginative scouring of the melodies to extract maximum impact.
There is the distinct feeling of directness and intellect behind the delivery of what are clearly carefully-considered words. Their weight is very present and the clarity of both delivery and production work together to ensure they are heard. There isn’t a moment where even the casual listener will ask themselves, ‘What was that line?’
Alex Ho (piano & keyboards) and Brian McCook (drums & production) complete the line up (with Keen also fulfilling guitar-ing duties), and the voices of their instruments share equal billing with Magazine Gap’s singer. There are other instrumental voices (brass and strings are in evidence, for example), but there’s proper weight given to both keys and drums beyond simply holding down chords and rhythm. Ho’s and McCook’s personalities as players absolutely shine through in sympathetic mixes which don’t constrain their flair.
And make no mistake, these guys are all serious players. I’m always impressed with how one-man-band Kevin Parker (Tame Impala) seems to make all of the instruments play hooks within the space of a single tune. But bearing in mind that he plays and writes everything, and produces, it’s perhaps less remarkable.
So the fact that McCook has allowed his band mates (and himself) to shine individually throughout tracks is extremely impressive. Ho employs some surprisingly frequent and florid piano runs, which don’t sound complex, but are – often playing right across the rhythm. They’re inserted skilfully and with taste.
McCook’s playing is tight, but playful and idiosyncratic. Guitar is often left to mark out chords at the top of the bar, while the rhythms jig all around (with bass and kick drum regularly joined at the hip) and the vocal perches atop the whole. It’s unusual, and yet is so accomplished that it sounds like one of the more regular things you’ll ever hear.
I personally noticed that the tracks are actually very busy in terms of parts, and yet they don’t feel like they are. Dancing in Quicksand shows some serious dynamic shifts and some highly snaky melodies for Keen to have to nail. And yet there’s also huge amounts of space in there, too. Of course, the casual listener may not notice this, and may care even less, but it’s fascinating for me to note the traits of Magazine Gap that set them apart from similar groups.
According to the press release, the newest songs appear first on the album, including recent single Superficial (already reviewed by Stereo Stickman). It sits comfortably in the contemporary pop bracket, as does album opener Possibilities.
It’s when you get to tracks like Snakes and Ladders and Calling Card that Magazine Gap start to hit some more angular shapes, with the Keen vocal finally getting a bit gruff and agitated on the latter of these.
The album closes on the lyrically-dense Jericho, as we are implored to ‘…solve the riddle / Of what little we know / Jericho’. When Keen delivers the title, it’s mangled in a soulful way quite unlike anything we’ve heard up to this point. He means this. And it’s another impassioned vocal performance, dipping and weaving around another snaky exploration of the melody. In the hands (or tonsils) of a lesser singer, these would be less likely to connect, but the humanity running through the middle of the performance makes them compelling.
It’s a very grown-up album, properly thoughtful and mature. It’s quite dense and quite busy. But for those willing to take a dip in What’s That About? there is much that can reward you. I finished the album quite breathless and impressed. You should be, too.