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White Magic - Dat Rosa Mal Apibus

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Artist: White Magic

Album: Dat Rosa Mal Apibus

Label: Drag City

Review date: Dec. 7, 2006

A few years back I walked out of a job I held at a NYC record and video store. White Magic’s Mira Billotte would soon take my place behind the counter. On a visit to the store a few months later, I was waiting to purchase some items, and saw her dealing with a particularly annoying, borderline-sociopathic customer (who I was familiar with, and always took measures to avoid) behind a face of expressionless void – not contempt, mind you, though it would have been hard to veneer the disgust, nor exasperation, though I’m sure that was evident. I sympathized, because really, there was no helping this guy. His behavior was such that he didn’t want help in finding an item, so much as he wanted to stump the employees with details on some arcane thing that was unavailable, so he could argue his fairly useless points; either that, or he’d just talk and talk to hear the sound of his own voice. He’d also pull shit like the one day when he came in and paid for a copy of the Tron DVD, on my watch, only in unwrapped nickels, which he carried in a velvet pouch and counted out meticulously on the counter as the line behind him grew in size and impatience.

The score of this incident, however, was employee 1, jagoff 0. Clearly, this guy had never been stonewalled by a professional before, someone with infinite patience yet very specific modes of operation. He asked to talk to a manager, who was more than happy to dig into the guy, and last I heard he was nothing but polite and courteous on each subsequent visit. It’s with this anecdote that I must approach every stage of White Magic’s slow, assured development as a band. I’d seen them play as a piano-led trio in a club, as an acoustic two-piece in a front parlor, as an electrified blues-psych outfit in the style of To Damascus, as a crumbling disaster zone opening for Electrelane. In the space of the years since its inception, Billotte has remained the only constant, as approaches and lineups shifted around her. As her involvement in the beautifully faded Quix*o*tic, with her sister Christina, waned, White Magic precipitated from rehearsals with a number of loosely affiliated NYC musicians. An EP, Through the Sun Door, was issued in 2003, then nothing for two whole years, as Billotte starred in Jem Cohen’s film, Chain, and musical ideas continued to firm and dissolve. (A promotional CDEP, funded by Tylenol (really, the first place you’d look for a White Magic/American Analog Set, right?), was passed out with headache remedies in 2005.)

Dat Rosa Mel Apibus, the LP album comes after a CD single featuring their version of “Katie Cruel,” and a lineup addition of guitarist Douglas Shaw as a permanent member. Both ’06 releases are, as expected with such a wait, apropos of molasses-slow tempos, falling into stores in the cold season of withering and decay. Quix*o*tic’s music ricocheted with grief, internalized into matte solids awash in acrid, musty doom, ultimately painting the portrait of unearthing a hope chest of tragically dead relatives, their last known photographs waving goodbye on top of it all. Had Mira not sang in the group, things would have felt much differently; it was her voice, when it could be heard, that added much of the outfit’s mystery.

White Magic, at this stage of development, sidesteps all of their past cul-de-sacs and drills down into that box, uncovering the autonomous fantasy worlds where their spirits now reside. Notice I didn’t say “haunt,” because that’s not what’s at stake here; the pace at which Dat Rosa unfolds, supported by a cast of guest musicians, including violinist Samara Lubelski, drummers Tim Barnes (who also produces the effort) and Jim White, and members of Gang Gang Dance, moves as if it’s walking into the wind, measured and determined. It takes from a small collection of styles and modes, largely in folk and séance, mountain and island sounds, appropriating when necessary, placing any tropes back into the basket when finished. The sense of uncertainty, not dread, appears at every corner, as if one has walked in to another’s meditative mind and requires a guide to maintain sure footing, before being forgotten about forever. Piano lines unfurl with constancy, scales rising and descending. Rhythms plod and plunk, drums hollowed out and ringing with each strike. What else happens in each track is really up to the moods and guests present. “Hold Your Hand in the Dark,” the album’s longest offering, is the only one that builds tension in a traditional sense, a steady kick-snare on the 4th beat and a rapidly fingerpicked, circular guitar, occasionally lurching into the record’s quickest pace as Billotte intones, “you will pass through the night / unchanged, I will be gone” more as a truism than any sort of warning. “All the World Wept” beats down like sunshine on splashing cymbals and simple sitar phrasing, its rhythms forced gently in and out of activity as the track ebbs and flows from consciousness. “Palm and Wine” bops along with a genteel, pleasant back-porch swing, a hard shift from the stark, classical delivery of “Katie Cruel.” The island rhythms and dubbed-out vocal howls of “Song of Solomon” end the session with more of a question than any sort of resolute action. Hanging by loosely sewn fabric, these 12 songs blow in a gentle sway, picking up into harsher gales at indeterminate places.

All along, Billotte’s voice sets the pace. Clearly she obsesses over the sound of words as sung by her own voice; part Sarah Vaughan, part lost soul, there’s a regional accent in there that defies her Maryland roots, quietly leading, unfrightened, into uncharted spaces. You have to trust her intuition, and Shaw’s able backing, in order to feel much from the listening experience. This is not where you go for instant gratification, but then again, anyone following White Magic’s arc is likely unaffected by impatience, and those who choose to follow their example may end up hearing melodies in the gales where once was fear.

By Doug Mosurock

Other Reviews of White Magic

Through the Sun Door

Dark Stars

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