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Magik Markers - Balf Quarry

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Artist: Magik Markers

Album: Balf Quarry

Label: Drag City

Review date: May. 4, 2009

Over eight years, Magik Markers have evolved from purely id-driven noisemakers to weavers of noise and song that work and sound a lot like Sonic Youth c. Evol. Yeah, it’s an obvious comparison, but hard to refute. Even in their chaos days, the detuned guitars of Elisa Ambrogio and now-departed Leah Quimby made a racket with that was awfully close to Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore’s. Now that Ambrogio and onstage drummer/in-studio handyman Pete Nolan have their guitars well under control, the ongoing similarities of tone and melodic content between their playing and SY’s can’t be mere accident. Throw in some rudimentary piano and Ambrogio’s pissed-to-bummed moan, add the recent business association with Lee and Thurston, and you’ve got yourself a new “Secret Girl.”

True, there are also profound differences; Sonic Youth’s collective instrumental facility has enables them to unleash their improvisational tendencies in decidedly jammy directions, while Magik Markers’ spare us the flash. And while SY has always seemed engaged and appreciative of some aspect of contemporary pop culture, Ambrogio’s lyrical stance vis-à-vis the world outside a very small circle is one of dismay. When SY sang about psycho killers and mental illness, you got the sense that they were singing about shit they thought was cool and sexy. When Ambrogio brings up mental health on “Psychosomatic,” which works in a melodic reference to Syd Barrett’s “Vegetable Man,” and the Stooge-y dirge “Risperdal,” it feels as if something is wrong.

The latter tune’s depiction of a mullet-coifed, mule-brained, muscle-car-driving nation that has apparently gone off of its mood stabilizer points to on one source of Ambrogio’s discontent; she lives in a country so blindly in love with the wrong parts of its past and running itself into the ground. She’s right, but she takes her bitterness one kvetch too far on “The Lighter Side Of… Hippies.” Taking swipes at Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children,” she lets her rage turn her into Jello Biafra. But that won’t stop me from listening; she matches the lyric’s spleen with explosive yet catchy guitars that slam with hurricane force in the verses.

One of the best things about Balf Quarry is the way it builds on the game-changing craftsmanship that Magik Markers brought to Boss. The noisy parts are noisier, the quiet creepy parts more effectively atmospheric, the writing more developed, and it ends on a strong note. The closer “Shells” pulls the album’s all-is-fucked sentiments into stark focus with its promise of a dead world. And yet, there’s hope in the growth on display. Its segmented structure sustains interest for 10 minutes, and they manage to evade a tumble into the yawning pit of influence by pairing harmonium droned with female vocals without sounding like Nico. Their dysphoria is pretty understandable given the state of things, but Nolan and Ambrogio defy it by getting better at what they do.

By Bill Meyer

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