One of the advantages of writing songs without the background howl of baying record executives requiring that you deliver the goods, is that you can just relax and do what you do best. Also without the context of those sonic goods having the final destination of making up an album, each song can be looked on as a potential single rather than some sort of contractual obligation. I’m sure that Magazine Gap always knew that at some point their songs would be collected together to form an album, but my point is that this factor never found its way into the DNA of the song-writing. The result is an album which already feels like a collection of singles, a “best of” if you will, which is an odd thing to say about a debut album, but you have to say what you see…or in this case, hear.
As someone who may have come to the ‘Gap, excuse the familiarity, in more recent years, it is interesting to hear the songs which pre-date my writing about the band. One of the common themes I have spoken about when reviewing songs such as Superficial and For The Ride is the amount of space they allow themselves as players and it was interesting to hear that it is a quality that they have always been smart enough to employ, less a learned skill, more an inherent gene in their sonic make-up.
The title track shows just how good they are at honing, editing and restricting their own playing, even with guitar and piano playing a call and response riff, brass sections breezing by and the trademark unfussy and fully-focused drumming all weaving their magic, they continue to let a lot of light in but never at the expense of building drama and dynamic. Dancing in Quicksand wanders some funky footpaths and at times is just doing enough to frame the vocals, at others creating the most infectious of grooves out of the most essential of musical ingredients.
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Body Language blends wonderfully staccato piano with soulful six-string and some lovely additional latin beats but perhaps the best is saved until last in the form of the wonderfully epic Jericho. It displays, yet again, how impact isn’t all about weight. As the musical textures are slowly gathered into the song, as the tension builds, as it naturally slips up a gear or two between verse and chorus, as the biblical references are applied to the modern world, as the blistering sax break adds no small amount of sass and sus, as the song weaves sonic blends into a deft and delicious designs, you finally realise that it is all about being clever not big! Although to be honest, if you this album hasn’t made you realise that long before this final track then perhaps you should go back to your classic rock albums…or “proper music” as you insist on calling it in a deluded fit of elitism, one which barely conceals just how scared you are of change, or subtlety, or originality, or moving out of your parents house. You are 34 for heavens sake! Man up!
Sorry! Back on track. And proving that even within the pop-soul sonic playground the they have made their own there is still plenty of room for experimentation and exploration, Ran For Cover introduces some wonderfully unexpected, latin-infused drum work, Kings, Queens and Jokers plays with a straighter, indie bat and In Two Minds feels like a country ballad which evolved into a soul anthem and then evolved again into a tasteful, not to mention graceful, powerful pop piece.
And if the opening track of any album is sort of a headline, a tune which needs to both grab your attention and sum up wha is about to follow, Possibilities does the job perfectly, though any song chosen could only hint at the lush sound-story which the album is about to guide us through.
Sometimes you buy an album based on the singles which paved its way and are sometimes disappointed to find that you have already heard the best of it, like the trailer for a blockbuster movie showing all the best bits ahead of the screening. The great thing about What’s That About? is that it is all about the iceberg metaphor. The recent singles being the pointy, shiny 10% sticking proudly out of the water, the rest of the album being hidden from view but no less solid, well-constructed, and certainly equally as cool.
But of course the thing with having the time to construct such a fine debut and setting yourself such a high benchmark for the future is how do you follow it up? I don’t think you have to worry, I think that the songs and ideas that Magazine Gap throw away are still better than a lot of the singles which get good chart placings these days. Still, there’s no rush, they will be dining out on this one for a while to come yet.