If only we could all face our troubles with such grace. Late last year, the Magic
Numbers, a foursome of two British brother-and-sister twosomes, released a collection of songs about heartache that, instead
of surrounding listeners with a wet blanket of self-pity, lets the sun
shine in. The band claims the Mamas and the Papas as an influence; this
is evident not only in their earthy mix of guitars and harmonizing, but
also in their photos. Three of them have long, center-parted hippie hair,
and they all have big, round smiling faces. Refreshing, actually, to see
a band not striking scowling poses in peg-leg pants and black eyeliner.
The comparisons to the Mamas and the Papas are ultimately weak; there's
a lot of blues mixed in with the folky pop, and traces of '80s
British band Prefab Sprout, who also spun their troubles into melodic
gold full of boy/girl harmonizing.
Since first listening to this disc, I've been walking around with glum
phrases like, "Looks like it all went wrong/ What am I to do?" and "I had
it all, but I never thought I did," running through my head but they
come accompanied with a feeling of glee. This is the magic of the Magic
Numbers. I've always been in awe of the way British bands can spit out
unabashedly catchy tunes while maintaining sincerity and integrity.
There are a lot of bands out there or over here that get choked up,
either trying to counter a hook with some more muscular chops or letting
their emotions run amok. The Magic Numbers have found the path between
the two excesses, sometimes letting their guitar meanderings carry the
tune, and then sometimes stripping away extra sounds so that the voices
shine, even as they whine.
"The Mule," especially, showcases the band's ability to turn a grim
scenario or a line like, "I'm a no-good, used-up, bruised and fucked-up
boy/ Who gets beat up just by looking at you" into a rollicking
resolution: "One more drink and I'll be fine/ One more girl to take you
off my mind."
The disc's first two tracks are the most effervescent. "Morning's
Eleven" is actually two songs masquerading as one. It starts as a
banjo-strumming, toe-thumping good time, complete with lyrics about
being in denial. But then the girls' voices start aahh-ing, the tempo
slows and lead singer Romeo Stodart admits that in the morning all the
feelings are severed. Stodart's voice fills with emotion and he offers
up a Motown-worthy mea culpa. "Forever Lost" was the disc's first
single. It's Magic Numbers magic: bouncy and joyful on top, but with contrasting
emotions and harmonizing voices eating away at the froth.
"Love's a Game" summons the memory of Prefab Sprout and other '80s suave
pop bands (Aztec Camera, the Style Council), and perhaps even winks at
them when, in the chorus, Michele Stodart sings, "Swear I know this much
is true." I sang that same line along with Spandau Ballet about 20
Romeo Stodart sings almost all alone on the final track, "Hymn to Her." A
strumming guitar and tinkling keyboard quietly carry him through his
resolution to feel again, "love or loathe." At the moment the song
threatens to become maudlin, the rest of the band kicks up the tempo.
And they all together sing: "I've been hurt before but all the scars
have rearranged." Would that we could all face our troubles with such grace.