In the wake of Laura Marling and Mumford And Sons, any UK band who dig fingerpicked guitars and waistcoats risk being slapped with the “nu folk” label. But though they share a self-conscious folkiness, The Magic Lantern are a quite different proposition from those West Londoners. For one thing, they hail from the opposite corner of the capital – the hip streets of Dalston – and are associated with the improvising F-IRE collective.
Their five members draw on diverse backgrounds including jazz, funk, contemporary classical, even klezmer music. Taking Jamie Doe’s strong and sweet melodies as the foundation, they build a warm chamber-group sound from cello, clarinet, percussion, guitar and cavaco (a small ukulele-like Brazilian instrument). There are echoes of Tin Hat Trio and Sam Amidon‘s work with Nico Muhly, but The Magic Lantern’s sound world is very much their own.
The arrangements by percussionist Fred Thomas conjure wonderful colours from this palette, and are driven by a strong narrative sensibility. Opening track Somebody Told Me (not, happily, a Killers cover) begins with just Phil Stevenson’s cavaco and Doe’s vocals before adding elements one by one: handclaps, Dave Shulman’s legato clarinet, Lucy Railton’s cello, brushed drums, bass. It is the oldest trick in the book, a brilliant means of drawing the listener into the album. Shine A Light On hops between Afrobeat and reggae feels without breaking a sweat, driven (in lieu of a bass) by Shulman’s bouncy bass clarinet. Backing vocals here are provided by jazz singer Emilia Martensson (also a guest on the recent Kairos 4tet album), though her cool tones are rather mismatched to the impassioned chorus.
Elsewhere, layered vocals are used to stunning effect. Halfway though Laura’s Song the band (playing something between a Celtic march and a bolero) give way to Doe singing in dissonant harmony: “Rest in peace, my friend / You’ll always be…” It takes several listens to hear the whispered word “loved” that completes the phrase. Karachi ends on a lovely early-Beatles vocal cadence, and is followed by the gorgeous four-part harmony of The Bridge, sung by Doe, Thomas, Railton and Stevenson, while Shulman contributes a thoughtful clarinet solo.
Porcelain perfection comes easily to The Magic Lantern, but they enjoy rippling the surface of their songs – as with the squeaking cello in A Man And His Dog – and their moments of abandon are especially effective. Guilty Hearts is a plangent lament (not far in spirit from Teitur‘s The Singer album) that unexpectedly breaks out into a bhangra percussion jam. The Ship That Washed Away starts as a pretty waltz but brews up into a storm featuring sputtering bass clarinet, electric guitar noise from Stevenson and muffled samples from the Shipping Forecast, before subsiding into dolphin-like cello keening.
At the centre of it all is Doe’s unshowy but extraordinary voice, a perfectly weighted instrument, a small miracle of clarity and directness. In a way it is almost too wonderful for its own good. Like Paul Simon‘s it is a voice that brings any lyric it sings into sparkling definition, but Doe’s lyrics are not quite up to the scrutiny. His storybook images lack sharpness, and coupled with his vocal composure they can seem distant. Some glimpses into the concrete and everyday could help ground the abstraction in emotional truth.
There is also a problem of tone: Shine A Light On comes across as preachy (“It’s not fair, I hope you’ll agree / That half of the whole world should live in poverty”) while global warming parable A Man And His Dog can’t decide whether it wants to be funny or earnest (“Everyone else has died / They thought they could save it, but they fried”). If the lyrics let the album down somewhat, it is only because the bar has been set so high by this beautiful, engrossing music.