"Low Birth Weight" is the most highly regarded album by Glen Johnson's anything-goes collective, and deservedly so. It's an elegant collection of dream-pop, adorned with fragile melodies and eclectic sounds. And as its charming cover of picnicking kittens - by taxidermy artist Walter Potter - might suggest, it sometimes leans towards the creepy and surreal.
The album begins firmly in the world of Shoegaze, with the wispy female vocals and fuzzed guitars of "Snowfall Soon". This immaculately produced tune is up there with the best that that brief but influential genre had to offer in its heyday. Its refrain "handle with care.. I'm touch-sensitive" (and a sudden suggestive moan) suggests an erotic film, but only the most tasteful, arty sort. Elsewhere, webs of crisp, single-fingered guitars form a backdrop for a lovely set of songs by a revolving cast of vocalists.
In some of their best pieces, the lyrics are just spoken over an instrumental backing. It's a risky technique, used by old school crooners to wring maximum sentiment from an orchestral ballad, and a couple of decades later by the likes of Barry White for sweaty seduction. But it's also a way of sounding instantly arty - because if you speak them, lyrics become poetry, don't you know! Piano Magic are the best modern exponents of this trick that I have heard. Their songs work as arthouse movie scenes in themselves, such as "Snow Drums", where singer Caroline Potter doodles an absent love's name in a misted car window after a band rehearsal. You can imagine the rain outside as a deadpan Raechel Leigh sighs "we fuck, in sadness" over a spangly refrain on the gorgeous "Bad Patient".
The majority of the voices are female - also deserving of a mention is "I Am the Sub-Librarian", a wry snapshot from the life of a "swan-feeder, spectacle-breaker" (isn't this archetype usually also mousy-haired?) . When they employ a male singer, it's often to explore nastier psychological territory, as on the repulsive "Dark Secrets Look For Light" ("give me an ugly wife... no man will look twice"). There's no clear dividing line between songs and instrumentals, and their sung and spoken scenes are interspersed with glittering instrumentals and electronic tweakery. Particularly fun is the antique novelty "Birdy Machine", which tweets and clangs just like it says on the tin. If you like this sort of thing, then delve backwards in Piano Magic's catalogue to their first album "Popular Mechanics". If you like an attractively fragile song or two, then delving forwards ("Artists' Rifles") will give you a lot to admire from this hugely underappreciated band.
July 31, 2007