Saturday, October 08, 2005

More on Magic continuing fascination with a band that was pretty great at one time

For a group that was once into some pretty Heavy Business, Magic Dirt have been treading some very mainstream waters recently. In my last post on them I mentioned Liz Phair, which isn't a completely off-base comparison given that MD covered her Supernova right at the start of their radio friendly days.

The differences are probably more illuminating though. Phair was known for songwriting first and performing skills last, where Magic Dirt started out as Sonic Youth Heavy and learned to write pop along the way, which strikes me as a more interesting pathway to wanna-be stardom. I know that there are any number of "betrayal" issues relating to the Liz Phair backlash, but what always strikes me is that she seems like a "small" artist (small voice, small stature, poor live performance, songs about little things) who looks slightly ridiculous trying to play a rock star. Magic Dirt, in contrast, seem to be trying to suck in their tummy and squeeze into their market constraints, which leaves open the possiblilty of a burst seam here or there.

Also in contrast with Liz Phair, Adalita (Magic Dirt's rock-chick front) must have put some major time into learning to sing while dreaming of stardom. It's kind of fascinating that the wonderfully trashed voice on Ice (Peel Sessions version) is coming from the same person who would sing Envious (posted yesterday) years later. It's like watching aging/decay in reverse or something. It's even more interesting given that the band was once on a major international label (back when they were stylistically inaccessable to that label's market, hence their best album Friends In Danger's selling price of a cent or so these days) and now, when they might actually have some serious commercial appeal, they're exiled to an Australian division of their original big label. On some fundamental level, nothing much about their career makes sense, and it throws a light on the bizarre rules that the music business operates by.

Clearly I miss the days when Magic Dirt were cranking out riff-heavy monsters like I Was Cruel (vinyl version, different from the CD version, guitars better, vocals less perfect). That's my preference, and if I have any real problem with mainstream music fans it's the fact that they generally make it impossible for bands to make a living playing the kind of music that I enjoy. I also think it's odd/sad that a group whose strength was its guitar/bass/drums has to hilight its vocalist to get ahead. So be it.

At the same time, it's occasionally neat to hear the way they're adapting their sound now that they've finally gotten big-time production down with Snow White (after two somewhat failed attempts). Sleep, in particular, invites you in with big-bucks vocals up front, leading into the chorus where a glossy rainbow of Adalitas in the foreground duke it out with feedback in the background. By songs end, we're back in Friends In Danger territory with all the lovely buzz and whammy that sucked me into the band in the first place. Tying it together is a bass/drum part that'll probably make this a very different (better?) song live. Shame they can't seem to find a producer who can make the vocals and the guitars sound great at the same time.

Another one I'm liking is Dyin', and more and more I'm thinking that it is the drumming that's keeping me around. Also some neat slide guitar. And ok, the little vocal swoop on the chorus is pretty great (Phair probably would have done it with that vocoder thing) and somewhat justifies the vocal lessons. The old Magic Dirt pops up to say hi on the last verse as things strip down for a moment, then comes on full throttle in the last thirty seconds or so.

Fans of The Old Magic Dirt ought to know that there's one track that's pretty much a straight throwback to Young And Full of the Devil, though again the new production isn't really up to their old pound and chant and squeal stuff. Not to mention that I've never really warmed to YAFOTD anyway.

It's all a little confusing, but not entirely pointless. I'm sure Aussies are thoroughly sick of them, and again I'd probably be less charitable if I were having this record shoved down my throat. But I'm not, and I still don't quite get why this group continues to be effectively shut out of the US. Makes me wonder what other long lived, English speaking, top-40 compatible, semi-worthwhile groups we aren't hearing about. The idea of geographically fractured markets for culturally compatible products at this moment seems odder and odder.

(And in view of this, yes I do have an awful lot of tracks posted considering that Snow White is a new release. I'll request that any readers who also enjoy Vegemite be good enough to either buy the album or post nasty comments about the band and how you wouldn't buy their CD if I held a gun to your head.)

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