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Magic Kids - Memphis

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Artist: Magic Kids

Album: Memphis

Label: True Panther

Review date: Aug. 24, 2010

In writing about Grass Widow’s Past Time, I made a point of talking about the music, eschewing any mention of influences, contemporaries, sworn enemies, or just friends. With Magic Kids, though, it would be impossible to talk about Memphis without bringing up the soundalikes. The similarities to a whole catalogue of Wall of Sound, power-pop, twee and indie luminaries are unavoidable. “This is the same [insert song part] as that [insert band you love] song” becomes tip-of-the-tongue within a few minutes.

This is not a bad thing. Memphis plays like the scrapbook of a particularly obsessive and voracious fan. Magic Kids are like fictional Cameron Crowe when he first met fictional Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. They can’t help but brim with unassailable positivity, and have adopted every musical tactic in pop history that they’ve come across.

And how adept they are. Right from the get go, “Phone” is a by the books Herman’s Hermits-style hit, lifting almost the entire chord structure from “I’m Into Something Good.” A seemingly egregious bit of plagiarism, but the modern twist — not just in sound but also in sentiment — gives it a fresh reason for being. It also creates a new role for song as connective tissue within a larger pop music organism. (While the Hermits influence was obvious enough to provoke an e-mail from Dusted’s fearless editor-in-chief, the revelation that “For You” by The Beets is also a variation in a minor key on the same song is what made this song for me.) What the band lacks in originality from time to time, they more than make up for in provoking original thought.

These exercises in degrees of separation make for some entertaining excavations. Some of it is pretty straightforward, like when the guitars on “Candy” clearly make a detour straight through The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s “Young Adult Friction.” Others can be more obscure, which makes it more rewarding when you crack the case. “Summer” obviously goes for the throat on an entire season, and in doing so picks up Nico’s chorus on “I”ll Be Your Mirror,” and the bobbing coconut rhythms from “Sunporch (Cha Cha Cha)” off The Graduate soundtrack, all wrapped up in vocal lines cribbed from Belle & Sebastian’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.” (You may take exception with that particular origin story. Understandable, and even encouraged. Popular music tropes are necessarily vague and difficult to attribute, and it really is up to each person to figure out what they’re hearing.)

In that sense, Magic Kids songs are at their best when Rorschachian in nature. A case can be made for hearing either the Ramones or the Ronettes (or Hunx and His Punx, if you want to keep it millennial) on breakout single “Hey Boy.” It just depends on your own preferences, and what kind of mood you’re in. In the end, though, the song imprints on the pop mechanisms you hold dearest; nowadays, any hint of a children’s chorus that comes on the radio immediately invokes this A-side.

What these songs lack in inventiveness they more than make up for in mutable universality. And it’s the same going the other way, as well. The songs that don’t reveal their sources are also the most forgettable. “Superball,” for example isn’t so different from any other songs, but it lacks a familiar hook that really catches the ear. The band is at its weakest when there is no signposting. It’s similar to the plight of the established touring band: they may want to play the new material, but the audience is there for the hits.

The a-ha moments in the archaeological game Magic Kids sets up on Memphis are fun precisely because the songs are so unassuming in their saccharine one-dimensionality. Pinpointing the precise reference provides the same small sense of triumph as throwing down a perfect whack-a-mole game. This will be a drag for cynics and armchair ironists everywhere, but don’t you deserve a break?

By Evan Hanlon

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