Piano Magic

The Troubled Sleep of Piano Magic

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After the Son de Mar score and the hapless Writers Without Homes, Piano Magic and 4AD split, much like a romantic relationship that probably made too much sense to truly benefit either party. Thankfully, Glen Johnson's group bounced right back -- it landed on Spain's Green UFOs label and quietly released this, its seventh album in as many years. One of the benefits of being a group with an ever-shifting lineup of semi-regular contributors and one-off collaborators is that it can take on a number of shapes and sizes; in this case, it takes on the version of the band that picks up right where Artists' Rifles left off. On Writers Without Homes, the songs seemed so labored over to a torturous extent that the feelings within them often came across as forced, even put on at times. One way or another, the sentiments here -- the familiar Piano Magic circuit of obsession, heartbreak, detachment, death -- strike sharply. One important factor is the return of Klima's Angele David-Guillou (see 2001's "I Came to Your Party Dressed as a Shadow"), who is the most expressive, complementary vocalist (neither twee nor overly dramatic) the group has counted as a member. The three songs featuring her on lead vocals are all central to the album, and they're also the most spare, whether the backdrops involve dexterously tangled acoustic guitars or heavily echoed throbs. She doesn't steal the whole show, however. Opener "Saint Marie" is one of several songs where Johnson takes the lead; beginning desolately, with nothing more than a voice, a sparingly plucked guitar, and the presence of open space, it winds itself up into a duel between spirals of fragile, Durutti Column-like guitar and a stuttering drum machine, which carries throughout the remainder of the song. If this should become the group's final album, as it has been intimated, Piano Magic went out in fine style. Come to think of it, this might be their best overall. Miserablism lives.

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