It’s one thing to cash in on “borrowed nostalgia from the unremembered ’80s,” as James Murphy put it. It’s quite another to dig deep into borrowed nostalgia from the unexperienced 80s_._ The first is a kind of homage for an unrepeatable bucolic past of Casios and barbiturates and roller skates. It’s pretty and a little bit sad, like finding a fuzzy picture of some attractive teenagers you don’t know hanging out on a beach in California, or worse, Florida. But the second kind of nostalgia is a bit weirder: unexperienced nostalgia, after all, has bred things as diverse as Renfairs, Civil War reenactments, and the Flintstones. In other words, it’s more cartoonish than elegiac, more fetishistic than sincere. This isn’t a bad exchange, necessarily, especially if you’re the kind of person who prefers the idea of dating Molly Ringwald in high school to the real-life experience of dating your actual high-school girlfriend. To bring things back to music, though, if the first kind of nostalgia is a band like Delorean, then the second is Magic Man, a baller group of college students born post-Reagan based out of New Haven and Boston and bound to blow up big in t-minus 5…4…3…2…
Check it out. The story behind Magic Man’s fantastic debut record Real Life Color (free download here: http://magicman.bandcamp.com) is so spot on that it reads like erotic fiction for PR firms. Written while the band was organic farming in France, the group proceeded to record the 10-song set on Garageband in an alternating series of dorm rooms primarily through their Macbooks’ built-in microphones! Holy shit, call the laundry service. What’s shocking, though, is how great the whole production sounds, crisp, warm, the synths blippy and blurrpy and the vocals echo-y and full. Whoever manned the boards for these masterful not-so-lo-fi sessions deserves a Grammy. Fuck Steely Dan: this is studio wizardry.
Even though it might be easy to deride Magic Man as just what the blogosphere ordered, I would urge the skeptical listener to suspend judgment a little bit longer. For all the links one could make between Real Life Color’s sonic palette and any number of other Internet generation phenoms-the pulsating melodic sensibilities of more recent Animal Collective, the chirpy blip-tune of the Postal Service, the quasi-Afro vocal tics of Vampire Weekend-the songs themselves are so immaculately crafted that they could, for all intents and purposes, be performed on Alpine horn and maracas and still sound like a million literal bucks. Blogs tend to latch on to gimmicky affectations (for a particularly egregious example, note recent Frenchkiss band Freelance Whales’ use of a watering can in their drum kit), in some extreme cases equating a group’s genre or identity with a single aesthetic decision: consider the fake genre of chill-wave, encompassing artists as diverse as Wavves and Neon Indian and predicated on nothing more than some vague combination of tape-hiss, bit-crushed sine waves, and a melted-vinyl quality to the master. What I’m saying is that our ears over the past couple of years have been trained to listen for acoustic minutiae rather than hooks or songcraft, the technical components of tracks rather than the platonic nature of the tracks themselves. Get over it. If Magic Man were a guitar-drums-and-bass kind of deal, no one would be equating them with the Arctic Monkeys; by extension, the band’s effortless evocation of the catchwords of late-00’s blog rock is too successful to be dismissed automatically as simple aping.
So, the songs: Side-A “Daughter” is a kind of suburban worldbeat anthem, all glitchy drum loops, some rollicking synth hooks, and a propulsive energy that breathes life into the otherwise synthetic soundworks. Then there’s the voice, which is hardly a voice, but more like the computer-generated composite voice of the singers from millions of other up-and-coming buzz bands. There’s not a lot of personality to it, but it’s undeniably effective, sort of like the way mood stabilizers might make a fine substitute for real emotions. The punch, though, lies in the instrumentals: there’s a tremendous fluency with the dynamics of synth-pop at work here, an avoidance of easy structures and verse-chorus redundancy. Think Tears for Fears with a digital twist and fewer melodramatic gestures and you’re getting close.
B-side “Nest” is actually my favorite of the two, a swirling bedroom tribal workout that evokes the gauzy aura of a half-remembered childhood hallucination. This kind of deconstructed pop strikes me as distinct from the overt song-ishness of “Daughter” ; it’s the sort of track you could get lost in for days, an infinitely-replayable 5:42 that never seems to age, like a great screensaver you can listen to.
Perhaps, then, that mercurial 80s vibe isn’t unremembered, or unexperienced, but universal, not a cosmic music of the spheres, but a more personal music of the synths. What else can I say? It’s magic, man.