It’s easy to write Magic Kids off as just another indie-pop band in an increasingly overcrowded field. They came to national attention via MP3 blogs; their debut album is being jointly released by Matador and True Panther Sounds; they’re mentioned alongside Brian Wilson and Belle & Sebastian; and, presuming their promotional video wasn’t shot on Halloween, they take their fashion cues from the Bedford Avenue bohemians. But the Memphis, Tenn., outfit is “indie” only in the sense that, on their stunning debut LP, they manage to make the grandest songs imaginable seem like they were composed with only you in mind.
Because this isn’t pop filtered through waves of noise and distortion (and for those of you who’ve spent the last few years sifting through lo-fi garbage for stray melodies, Memphis will be a revelation). This isn’t pop filtered through Elephant 6-esque experimentation — at 29 minutes, the record plays like the first half of an Olivia Tremor Control Record, before the field recorders come out and everything gets a little wacky. And this isn’t found pop, either. You know, a couple of chintzy melodies slowed down and sexed up via Washed Out.
The record was recorded by Shane Stonebeck, whose recording history provides the key detail in understanding the Magic Kids’ sound. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, Stonebeck worked with the last wave of mega-selling acts before the whole thing collapsed: N*SYNC, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears. The Magic Kids, then, are pop filtered through straight-up, unironic pop, the kind of stuff engineered expressly to make as many people as possible as happy as possible.
Ironically — or, given the chaste nature of ’00s indie, appropriately — Magic Kids frontman Bennett Foster (remember the name) is nowhere near as sexually threatening as, say, Justin Timberlake. He just really, really wants to be with you, baby. Sleep, for him, is only a means by which he can wake up and see you again. So Memphis isn’t making any big statements about the modern romantic landscape. There are enough wits working on that one (with Gareth Campesino! putting in overtime). By refusing to acknowledge, say, the ever-prevalent casual hookup (not to mention the last 20 years or so of music), Foster is nullifying the importance of the things that sociologists and psychologists just can’t stop fretting over. Like how, for example, excessive Facebook checking and texting are adversely affecting a generation. When Foster croons (and this is an album of crooning) that “I’ll be waiting here right by the phone,” it’s clear he’s not waiting for a text on his iPhone; he’s in his parents’ kitchen, by the rotary phone, anxiously awaiting the sound of his crush’s voice. While tracks like “Candy” may evoke the let’s-take-over-the-town grandeur of Arcade Fire, Foster sees nothing inherently wrong with the suburbs.
Maybe it’s because, unlike most of his youthful contemporaries, he isn’t pilfering OxyContin from his parents’ medicine cabinet; he’s pilfering Beach Boys albums from their record collection. (And if he is pilfering pills, he’s taking Adderol. You can’t make a song as superhumanly precise as “Cry With Me Baby” without some intervention, pharmaceutical, divine, or otherwise.) So, yeah, this record cribs a lot from the Beach Boys. But faulting a good album for sounding like Pet Sounds is like faulting a good novel for reading like The Great Gatsby. If you’re trying to make something lasting, why not look to what’s lasted? And it’s not like the album is devoid of invention. “Skateland,” after a slow build, races around the roller-rink at top speed, with the Kids grabbing hold of Brian Wilson, Robert Smith, and Win Butler along the way for one gorgeously choreographed number.
…With all of the above being an attempt to intellectualize what is, at its core, a truly ineffable pop album. The Magic Kids are going at your heart with every melodic tool in their arsenal — shouts and synths, strings and sugary production — all in an effort to make your summer (or fall, or winter, or old age) that much better. To think that they won’t take shit for their derivative modus operandi or twee-as-fuck lyrics is to have never surfed the Internet. But hopefully the jaded masses can get past all that, because the Magic Kids just want to make you happy, baby. And what’s wrong with that?