Album Review: Magic Kids – Memphis

Without even touching upon specific details of their wonderful debut album, Memphis sextet Magic Kids have already earned themselves points simply by confounding expectations. Of their relatively sparse recorded output thus far, one single has been released on local garage label Goner and the other – on blues-rock imprint Fat Possum – was a split E.P. with former touring partners The Smith Westerns. A glance at their list of future commitments reveals upcoming tour support slots with Ariel Pink and Wavves. Without hearing a Magic Kids song, it would be understandable to look at this information and assume they were just another lo-fi garage band, churning out scratchy punk-rock updates of Sixties R&B in a vain attempt to capture some of the vital energy of the late Jay Reatard. It’s a huge surprise, then, to find that the band actually trade in the kind of bright, polished pure pop perfected nearly half a century ago by Brian Wilson and Jeff Lynne.

Memphis is a little record that sounds massive. Its eleven tracks whizz by in a 30-minute sugar rush that nods to the California sound of the Sixties, the blue-eyed soul of hometown heroes Big Star, the post-punk pace of C86 Britpop and – most of all – the baroque flourishes of E.L.O. or Pet Sounds/Smile-era Beach Boys, with This is orchestral pop at its most potent, and I’m not just talking about the kind of added-on string quartet usually drafted in when bands run out of ideas. Here the songs are bolstered by what sounds like a full orchestra: strings, horns, bells, whistles, the lot. Admittedly, the arrangements aren’t as complex as those on Wilson’s “teenage symphonies to God,” but it’s a pretty heavenly noise nonetheless.

Thematically, Memphis is pretty much a concept album about youth; from the sepia-tinged snapshot that adorns the cover through to the subject matter (almost exclusively holiday romances and the joys of young love) and the general air of upbeat innocence that engulfs every note, the album is a fairly accurate record of those unbeatable years from the late teens to early twenties when the entire world revolves around two people and the everyday grind of real life couldn’t seem further away. Lyrics are wide-eyed and naïve – main vocalist Bennett Foster singing of “A star-crossed romance/ (that) starts with a glance” or declaring “There’s no candy sweeter than my baby” – but never too sickly sweet. With just one track that isn’t explicitly a love song (”Little Red Radio,” which I guess could be interpreted as a love song to music), it’s amazing Foster manages to stay so upbeat. “Hey Boy” is the only number where his heart seems to be causing him problems; “Is she telling lies?” taunts violinist Alice Buchanan, to which Foster retorts “No, no, she wouldn’t do that.” In terms of “twee,” it’s right up there with Belle and Sebastian.

At this moment in time, with the idealistic teenage fantasies of “Glee” at the top of the “guilty pleasure” lists the world over, Magic Kids really can’t fail (the members even look like various characters from that show on the press shots; a hunk, a borderline jock, a pretty geek, a not-so-pretty geek…). The only real concern is whether, realistically, they can get away with making another album like this; even the Beach Boys had to stop singing about young love when they hit a certain age. If they can find a way to pair up the kind of bombastic orchestral pop on display here with some more mature subject matter, they could well be onto a winner; after all, marriage,kids and much of the stuff that comes with age can be as joyous as the rush of adolescence. Until then, Memphis is a truly lovely album, one that can transport even the most cynical of grizzled old folks back to the glory days of their youth, and a very promising start to a band’s career.