The Magic Numbers

The Magic Numbers

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Every three years or so, the British music press touts another band as the Next Big Thing, or at least the antidote to the trend the press kick-started a couple years back. Some of these bands -- whether they're Suede, the Strokes, or Franz Ferdinand -- are quite good, even excellent, and sometimes they're merely average; it all depends on what trend the band's supposed to bring to end and what fad they're supposed to kick-start, since the quality of the music almost always takes a back seat to the demands of fashion. This kind of hyped-up transience is one of the great things about pop music -- not only is it supposed to exist in the moment, sometimes great pop music only sounds great within its given moment, whether it's Whigfield or Crazy Frog -- but that doesn't mean that the trends are always fun, and one of the more inexplicable British-driven fads of the 2000s is the Magic Numbers, whose eponymous debut album was hailed as an instant classic in many quarters upon its early-summer release in the U.K. in 2005. Comprised of two sets of brothers and sisters, the quartet sings soft, gentle sunshine pop with vaguely rootsy underpinnings. Because of this slightly folky bent and clear reverence for '60s pop, they were positioned as the return of the real as compared to the new wave of new wave, which encompassed anyone from Interpol to Franz, and even the neo-garage rock revival of the beginning of the decade -- after all, by the summer of 2005, it was clear that the White Stripes were too arty and obstinate to qualify as a roots band.

While The Magic Numbers is as dippy as any number of harmony-laden folk-rock groups that arrived in the wake of the Mamas & the Papas, their cutsey navel-gazing is most decidedly a product of its time. So are the simpering schoolboy vocals of lead singer Romeo Stodart, whose thin, squeaky earnest mewling makes Coldplay's Chris Martin sound macho and distracts from whatever pleasures that can be gleaned from the harmonies of his sister Michele and their colleague Angela Gannon. Romeo Stodart's voice and his mopey lovelorn lyrics are clear outgrowths of late-'90s indie pop, picking up on the tweeness of Belle & Sebastian but discarding their clever literary bent, not to mention their songcraft, in favor of simple-minded confessionals spiked by the occasional naughty word ("I'm a no-good used-up bruised-up f*cked-up boy," he unconvincingly croons), alternating between singalong happy tunes and slow, sleepy crawls. It's all pleasant enough on the surface and since it self-consciously recalls classic rock -- not only in sound but in titles that recall songs of the past ("Wheel's on Fire" is a riff on Bob Dylan & the Band's "This Wheel's on Fire," "Hymn for Her" is close to the Pretenders' "Hymn to Her" and it also shares a name with an Ides of March song, but that's probably not a deliberate move) -- some listeners will be inclined to give them a pass, since it's kind of familiar in feel while sounding different than a lot of guitar-based rock and pop in 2005.

Yet if The Magic Numbers is judged against the standards of second-tier '60s folk-pop -- forget the Beatles and Beach Boys or even the Mamas & the Papas or Donovan or Lovin' Spoonful, but against legions of soundalikes like Rose Garden -- the group's music is not as well written or melodic or as interesting, nor does it hold up well to late-'90s indie pop from Belle & Sebastian to Elliott Smith, and it lacks the conviction of freak folk, since their aw-shucks, lovey-dovey pose feels contrived. Nevetheless, the quartet is much easier to listen to than Devendra Banhart -- sunny tunes and smooth surfaces do indeed help -- and they have a certain veneer of mature, classy respectability that means this can appeal to everyone from baby boomers to echo boomers. It all glides by easily enough on its surface, but dig a little deeper and The Magic Numbers reveals itself to be not just a crashing bore, but an irritating one since it not only lacks one song with an undeniable, memorable hook, but the self-satsified vibe of the band combined with Stodart's reedy whine makes the Magic Numbers feel not just less real than the groups they're allegedly an antidote to, but more disingenuous as well.

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