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Visitors to my last.fm profile may be curious about the artist who are top of my "most played" chart. So this post may explain some of the appeal of Piano Magic, apart from their cute name. They started out in the mid-90s as a loose collective featuring Glen Johnson and assorted collaborators, and they don't (normally) do piano music. Instead their prolific work has mixed whimsical electronica, elegant dream-pop, lush shoegaze, atmosphere-backed poetry fragments, and even a couple of ventures into pure ambient (A Trick of the Sea, review) and film soundtracks (Son de Mar, review). Later they settled into a more-or-less constant band line-up, and their three most recent albums have been filled with straightforward though exquisitely-arranged songs. Their finest album, Low Birth Weight (review), mixed all their best qualities of wistful melody, colourful arranging and atmosphere-setting in fine proportion. Here are three other albums from various stages of their career which show their eclectic tastes in contrast. (See also Writers Without Homes, review).
Piano Magic - Popular Mechanics (1997)
The eclectic collective's debut is a curiosity shop of colourful and bizarre electronic miniatures. Just as Kraftwerk iconified modern technology, Piano Magic here evoke a steampunk world with all manner of marvellous contraptions. It moves at an itchy pace with a short attention-span, as if we get no more than a glimpse of each antique on the shelves, like the Aphex Twin-like kitchen-sink electronic splurge of "Metal Coffee", and the glittering waltz melody of "Revolving Moth Cage". The eerie mood competes with a sense of whimsical fun, with neither quite winning. Drifting amongst the electronics are a few brief dreamy female-voiced songs, including "Wintersport" which morphs strangely into a Tangerine Dream-like analogue synth race, and "Amongst Russian Lathes and Metal Curls" backed by a single stark low hum. The most wonderful example of this "art-house" song style (which they were to perfect on "Low Birth Weight") is "Wrong French", where Raechel Leigh recites wistful diary fragments in a deadpan-sweet tone over gently swirling keyboards.
Piano Magic - Artists' Rifles (2000)
Piano Magic's most minimalist full album is this elegiac set on the theme of the First World War and its dead and missing. A spare militaristic drum introduces a listenable though tasteful sequence of songs interspersed with instrumentals. An array of haunting melodies are sung by the delicately harmonised voices of Glen Johnson and Caroline Potter, while the instrumental textures are stripped down to thin gauzes of chiming, pinging guitars and the occasional solo cello or harpsichord. The sombre beat and bassline of "No Closure" set the scene - this song's lingering fadeout may be wordplay on the title but it works. The vocal effects are particularly beautiful on "A Return to the Sea" where Potter sings plaintively in stereo counterpoint with herself. It dips briefly into heavier territory on the shoegazy instrumental workout on "Password", before the album closes respectfully with the featherweight tribute of the title-track.
Piano Magic - Part-Monster (2007)
The third and latest album by the "conventional group" incarnation of Piano Magic is full of crisply-produced dream-pop, with more than a hint of 80's alternative (Cure / New Order) sound. Vocals are shared between the clear-toned Angele David-Guillou, who sings the soaring-chorused single "Incurable" and "Soldier Song", and Piano Magic mainstay Glen Johnson, whose whinier voice fronts some some genuinely good tunes including "Halfway Through" and "The Last Engineer". Simon Rivers also lends a deadpan tone to the Morrissey-style dirge "England's Always Better (As You're Pulling Away)", which pulls itself out of a damp puddle with an elegant brass arrangement. It's all arranged with admirable colour and precision - one particularly great moment is the driving twin-guitar instrumental "Great Escapes", which recalls another underappreciated band, The Church. Though the acoustic title song is a bit too much of a downer to finish on.