Sunday, July 6, 2014

album review: 'don't kill the magic' by MAGIC!

So if you took a look at the charts right now, you'd find that they look wildly different than they did a good four months ago. And really, that's a good thing because the beginning of 2014 became played out for the pop charts in record time, to the point where I'm honestly dreading making my year-end hit song lists and underrating songs simply because of overexposure.

But putting that aside, at long last summer has arrived with a collection of new songs - most of which are by artists I've never heard of before. Which for me is exceptionally unnerving, because I criticize pop music and I thought I had a pretty good handle on what was becoming popular. And for acts like Nico & Vinz, Rixton, MKTO, and KONGOS to effectively come out of nowhere is more than a little unnerving. It's a troubling sign when I felt relieved I knew who Sam Smith was thanks to his success in the UK - a little less of a relief after I listened through his underwritten bore of an album and couldn't come up with anything noteworthy to say about it, but knowing was half of the battle here.

So when I looked at the charts this week and saw that 'Rude' by Canadian reggae fusion band MAGIC! was at #2, I was a little annoyed, because not only did I barely know who these guys are - and as a Canadian music critic living in Toronto, that's a problem - but that of the Canadian pop rock acts who have come up in the past couple of years, it's these guys who get popular? Not Marianas Trench or Tokyo Police Club or The Brilliancy, but MAGIC!? But when I racked my memory, I did recognize the frontman and songwriter of the band Nasri Atweh - for all of the wrong reasons. Primarily known as a songwriter for Chris Brown, Pitbull, and most for Justin Bieber, my first exposure to him in front of the microphone was on Shakira's self-titled album earlier this year on the song 'Cut Me Deep', where he was promptly blown off the stage, which did not give me a good feeling going into this record. But I figured, 'Hey, it's been a long time since reggae has charted on the Hot 100, so this album could be interesting, right?' So I checked out Don't Kill The MAGIC! - how did it go?

Ugh... I really want to like this album more than I do, because there are elements of this record that I think could have worked a hell of lot better than they do. As it is, Don't Kill The Magic is frustratingly mediocre and really doesn't coalesce into much beyond a pop record that just found more and more ways to irritate me every time I listened through it. And while I do know it's a debut album and bands take a bit of time to get going, MAGIC! is trying to imitate a very specific formula and they aren't doing it very well.

So let's get that comparison out of the way right now, because otherwise it will overshadow this review completely: MAGIC! has gone on record saying they want to sound like a modern-day version of The Police, arguably one of the most important musical acts of the 70s and 80s in their fusion of rock, new wave, post-punk and reggae. And I can definitely see the appeal - Bruno Mars went for the same thing with 'Locked Out Of Heaven' and it turned into one of his better songs. And there are points where MAGIC! gets close - the percussion and drumwork is easily the highlight of the album with a lot of texture and energy, and it helps that the mix balance gives them a lot of explosive presence. And when this album bothers to kick the guitars higher in the mix, the guitar melodies aren't bad either, like on the song 'Little Girl Big World'. But for the most part, the production completely neuters the energy and force of this album, making the guitars watery and limp and adding a thin haze to everything else that washes out the colour. It doesn't help matters that whenever looped sound effects and reverb and other electronic elements are added it really sounds jarring, leading to a sound that is expansive yet really stiff. The difference between that stiffness and the tightness of The Police really comes down to production balance: when The Police kept their guitar melodies in the forefront, it kept the tight rhythms front and center, letting the percussion keep the tempo and add variety. MAGIC! puts the percussion in front - which could work, the drumming is my favourite element of this music - but it weakens the guitars and it loses that melodic foundation, which makes the record feel a lot less organic and a lot weaker.

Granted, it doesn't help matters that in place of Sting, we have Nasri Atweh - and man, that's a harsh comparison indeed. As much as Sting can annoy me, the man is a genuinely gifted singer with disgusting amounts of charisma and expressive presence, with a huge range to boot. Atweh, on the other hand... look, he doesn't impress me behind the microphone. His delivery toes the line between earnest and languidly relaxed, and he's not a bad singer, and his vocal production is actually pretty good... but it's a style of delivery that very quickly grated on my nerves. I don't know if it's a lack of charisma or his choices to overplay and underplay certain notes, but more often than not it comes across as extremely weak and - honestly - like a little bit of a pose, especially on the reggae-inspired tracks.

Now this could be excused if the songwriting held up... and here's where we run into real issues and I start getting really exasperated. I'll say it: I think 'Rude' is one of the worst hit songs of the year, a completely charmless song that reeks of smarminess as Atweh goes to ask the father of his girl for her hand in marriage, the father justifiably says no, and Atweh spends his chorus whining about the father's 'rudeness' before saying screw it and marrying the girl anyways. It's self-obsessed, petulant, and reminds me way too much of 'Santeria' by Sublime, another song I can't stand. And there are tracks on this album where Atweh's whinier tone continues to annoy the hell out of me. 'No Evil' has some good momentum, but it's a song that fails to convince me that the ex Atweh's trying to win back after a string of one night stands would be better off. 'Stupid Me' plays Atweh as lovestruck but then has the lyrics saying that if the girl doesn't want him as much as he wants her, she's 'stupid you' - because that's flattering! The title track is a song where he pleads for the relationship to stay together and goes over the top in the same way Bruno Mars' 'Grenade' did, and 'One Woman, One Man' is just as hyperbolic in its self-deprecation - if you call yourself a loser in the song unironically, who finds that attractive? And what's really annoying is that there are a few songs I think are pretty well-written. As an earnest confession of love, 'No Way No' isn't bad, and 'Paradise' opts for some more abstract poetry that's perfectly fine for pop music and fits the tone of the instrumentation - and hell, even though it's shallow, 'How Do You Want To Be Remember' isn't bad.

But in the end, I'm left asking the question who this music is for. It's too neutered and weak to rock, too watery and lacking flavour compared to solid reggae, and yet with its sound I see it becoming just a novelty act on pop radio. Lyrically, the band is inconsistent at best, I'm not impressed by Atweh as a frontman, and while the instrumentation does have some flavour, it also sounds like every element that could have made the band stand out more was washed out and watered down, and the lack of solid melodic focus means it's a really forgettable record for me. So yeah, 4/10, and no recommendation. Right now, there's more interesting pop rock cropping up on mainstream radio - don't bother with this.

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