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White Magic - Dark Stars

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Artist: White Magic

Album: Dark Stars

Label: Drag City

Review date: Nov. 21, 2007

It takes only a few seconds for White Magic to establish an alternate universe here on the band's third EP (and fourth recording overall). A series of repetitive piano notes … a chink of chimes … some staccato yelps of voice – and there you are, in a mysterious, "other" place. It's a space that maybe abuts freak folk or post-classical or vocal blues at its peripheries, but only in the way that universes bend back on each other in time-space continuum warps, connecting dark stars that are hundreds of light years apart. It's really not even close.

White Magic's EP lasts just under 21 minutes and spans four distinct songs. Eerieness, a sense of alternate keys and tunings, oddly syncopated rhythms and Mira Billotte's wild, husky voice are what links these tunes, but it's a loose connection. They're like rooms in a creaky, whispery house, each haunted by its own set of spirits.

As on last year's Dat Rosa Mal Apibus, the core of the band is Billotte (mainly singing and playing piano), and Doug Shaw, primarily but not exclusively playing guitar. Jim White of Dirty Three sits in on drums on three of the four tracks, ceding sticks to Shaw on "Poor Harold" (oddly, the most percussive song on the record). Tim Koh, who has also worked with Ariel Pink, plays bass.

The album begins with its most unearthly, late-classical sounding composition, the dreamy, slow-moving "Shine on Heaven." Here, Billotte erases every trace of blues from her voice – no slides, no slurs allowed – punching the high notes, then cutting them short in mid syllable. The piano, meanwhile, oscillates between a handful of carefully chosen notes, repetitive and mesmeric, a shifting ground under free-form vocals. The song is profoundly disturbing and yet rather beautiful. "Very Late" has more of a blues flavor to it, but only in the vocals. The piano, again, careens in a very post-modern way across minor chords and accidentals. "Poor Harold” is the clear stand-out, all martial snare drum cadences and keening, swooping vocals. The song, about a grave digger, gains speed midway, the piano pushing, the drums keeping frantic pace, like a music box gone horribly awry. Then it rights itself, skipping tipsily, mournfully on, crazy walloping harmonies asking "What are… What are… What are we?"

The final song, "Winds" is the only one credited to Shaw rather than Billotte. It’s also the calmest and most overtly beautiful track on the EP. Here Billotte sings with herself in multilayered harmonies, as Shaw's voice weaves under and around her, carrying the narrative. Finally both take leave of words, keening and yodeling and yelping in counterpart. The drums, the guitar and the piano act almost like a metronome, keeping the sound grounded in rhythms and chords while allowing the singers to swing free. It's like a machine built to reflect other rules of physics – meticulous, logical, yet not really belonging to our world at all.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of White Magic

Through the Sun Door

Dat Rosa Mal Apibus

Read More

View all articles by Jennifer Kelly

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