An album flush with bittersweetness and its creator's trademark dulcet-toned jangle, Martin Courtney released his solo debut, Many Moons, in 2015, shortly after his band Real Estate made their Billboard 200 Top 40 debut with third album Atlas. Seven years and two more Real Estate LPs later, he returns with the nostalgic Magic Sign. Remaining in the same musical neighborhood as his debut, its sentiments were inspired by looking back at that transient time just before young adulthood, in his case in the early 2000s. Courtney has said that the title Magic Sign refers to directional signs he and friends would inevitably stumble upon when lost exploring New Jersey suburban sprawl as teens; with time, they were less and less likely to get lost. That lesson in experience and optimism shines through dreamy guitar atmospheres on much of the record, including opener "Corncob." The song kicks off with a gentle acoustic riff before the band joins in -- the band here being mostly Courtney, along with Tim Ramsey (Fruit Bats, Tall Tales & the Silver Lining), Oliver Hill (Pavo Pavo, Coco), drummer Matt Barrick (Matt Berninger, the Hold Steady), and singer Kacey Johansing. Pedal steel, harpsichord-adjacent keyboard timbres, layered strumming, and electronic shimmer flesh out the song's sound as it saunters along, lost in reflection, in the album's frequent midtempo range. Most of the tracks continue in kind, though listeners will encounter more dynamic modal shifts ("Time to Go"), twangier detailing ("Living Rooms"), and an instrumental ("Mulch") along the way. The closest thing to an actual outlier is "Sailboat," whose brisker tempo, driving drums (by Barrick), and distorted guitar tones reflect an attempt by Courtney "to rock," although airy vocals, lyrics about trying to sleep (albeit with loud crickets and ghosts in the walls), and an adherence to jangle keep the song in close sonic contact with the rest. Even that track ends with the affirmative "Can't ask for more/I guess I'm doing all right, all right." Sure to be a fan pleaser, "Exit Music" appropriately closes the set on a web of honeyed guitar arpeggios, strings, and harmonized vocals that deliver the assurance: "We're not as young we once were/But we both know we've still got time, for sure."
Magic Sign Review
by Marcy Donelson