The Magnetic Flowers, who have to be near the top of nearly anyone’s list of best bands in Columbia, recently released their excellent second full-length, and in doing so raised the bar pretty damn high for the rest of this year’s releases.
The band plays a kinetic brand of literate indie pop with disparate folk, cabaret and psychedelic threads. Featuring a surfeit of talent in its four vocalist line-up (all of whom seem to pop up in the background, singing multiple parts, on pretty much every song) and the songwriting talents of Patrick Funk, Jared Pyritz and Adam Cullum, the group is nonetheless more than the sum of its parts. When playing together, their music seems to drip with endlessly layered melodies, hyper-literate wordplay and song structures that seem to positively burst from the seams.
The new record, entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About [a play on the title of a Raymond Carver short story collection], sees the band delivering on the promise of their debut in spades, with potent versions of songs that have already become staples of their live show.
Opening up with the tribal thump of the band’s twisted adaptation of the traditional “I’ll Fly Away,” this scratchy, rough-and-tumble introduction still manages to immediately capture the essence of what makes the group so great: Every vocalist contributes to the layered sing/shout-a-long, with words and melodies offset to give the listener the feel of a tumbling, shambolic free-form exercise that magically makes perfect musical sense. Later the band will come full circle in a inverted, lush reprisal of the opening cut.
The first original on the record and a highlight of the band’s recent live shows is “Southern Baptist Gothic,” which showcases Pyritz’s spitfire vocal style that has gradually emerged from its near-mimic of Conor Oberst to become an assured, unique presence in its own right. This track also establishes the sonic template from which most of the songs on the record are derived from: interlocking electric and acoustic guitars, integral walking bass lines from Albert Knuckley, and over top of it all, the hyper-melodic keyboard lines (or accordion parts) provided by Cullum. Drummer Evan Simmons has his hands full just trying to keep all his bandmates together, but he still manages to give each song the dynamic tug and pull that keeps the listener on the emotional journey of the singer. Although the song features a lyric-heavy stream-of-conscious narrative, its power comes from the sheer confidence Pyritz exudes on the mic and the seemingly effortless fills and pick-ups the entire band engage in as the song sways from fast to slow and low to high across its five minute running time.
Another highlight, and the soulful center of the record, is the emotionally wrought “Northern Lights,” a ballad that exquisitely captures the jumble of confused thoughts and concerns that make up the average twentysomething’s psyche. The song, centered around a few simple guitar chords and a mournful accordion melody, is a coming-of-age song pushed ahead ten years, addressing all of the insecurities, demands and questions that life holds once you are actually suppose to start living it. It’s a beautiful, touching anthem that has the power to strike a chord right in the heart of the band’s intended audience.
Another song of note, “Talk Talk Talk Talk,” is Cullum’s first turn at lead vocals for the band and where the record’s title is pulled from. Whereas Cullum rarely shows the kind of restraint and control of the two frontmen, but he makes up for it by putting his all into every lyric he utters, from breathless exhalations to uninhibited hollering. The song is allusion-heavy, with provocative twists on both T.S. Eliot and Raymond Carver and ironic name-checks of Donnie Darko and Charles Bukowski. The song is built on a jazz-like vamp that suits the poem-song approach the band takes with it. It aims to be a “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for the modern-day hipster set, and hits it fairly well on the nose.
The album ends with “Reprise,” a wholly different adaption and take-off of the gospel number of the beginning. The original take is the shortest and most minimalist song on the record, with the band sounding slightly unhinged. The reprisal is the longest and most sonically lush, with every vocalist aiming for their tenderest performance. Chants of “Hallelujah” are repeated over and over with the upmost sincerity. It is the perfect way to end this roller coaster of a record, with a band utterly at peace after the musical, lyrical and emotional twists and turns that precede it.
On the whole, this is an impressive record that clearly draws upon much of the national indie scene of the past ten or fifteen years, yet forges a unique identity for this seriously talented group. However you feel about the state of music, locally or nationally, you should feel proud to have a band like Magnetic Flowers making music in your town.