When The Magic Numbers exploded onto the musicscene two years ago, they had a lot of things goingfor them. Their gloriously sweet, summery harmoniesand love of instruments such as the melodica and minixylophones, not usually seen outside infants schoolbands, offered an alternative to the ubiquitous spikyguitars ushered in by The Strokes and embracedby The Libertines. Their double helping ofsiblings offered its own intrigue and theiruncompromising image was a two-fingered salute to theoverly airbrushed divas and manufactured boy bandsusually clogging up the pop charts.
They won over the world at the summer festivals andwe took them to our hearts. There was a certaintweeness about their folky happy-pop but it was always(just) under control. They seemed to tour incessantly,always put on a good show and carved out their ownniche, a genuinely original band with somethingdifferent to offer and a commendable attitude oftake-it-or-leave-it.
This makes it all the more disappointing thattonight, in front of a sold-out crowd at Hammersmith Apollo, they don’t really seem to know whothey are any more, trying alternately to be anoverproduced New Seekers smothered inorchestral strings and an unreconstructed rock-outcountry act in the mould of Garth Brooks oreven Bruce Springsteen. There’s the occassional hintof The Byrds under Gram Parsons’ influence butit’s usually confined to their older material.
Either direction, taken on its own, could lead themfar but as they veer between the two, reaching to theextremes of two styles between which their first albumsat comfortably, they seem genuinely Forever Lost, notsure what they want to be and, in the process, askingtoo much of the sound techs who can’t cope with thedisparate styles their overambitious set is trying tocover.
Things start off well enough, with Michele Stodartlooking fabulous in a tailored black suit half-buriedbeneath volumes of hair, wielding a huge bass guitarlike a female Slash. This is good – rockier andmore energetic than you might expect, perfect for thelarger venues they can fill without problems. The newdirection means that older songs such as Forever Lostand Love Is A Game take on a heavier edge; but theydon’t suffer (too much) for it.
If they’ve looked at the future and decided it’slive rock outs, we can live with that. At timesthey’re not a million miles away from T-Rex,and Crying Shame in particular cements the idea thatthey’re writing songs that are designed to sound goodlive.
But while this works on some of the new songs, onothers it doesn’t. As if feeling guilty aboutsometimes taking a rockier road, they’vecounted-balanced this by introducing not only strings,but strings by Robert Kirby, the man who polished upNick Drake, Vashti Bunyan and TheStrawbs. Orchestral folk should be well withintheir remit, but somehow it falls flat on an Apollostage that’s being asked to present the perfect soundfor rock’n’roll one minute and a nine-piece orchestrathe next. It doesn’t work, and neither does the weakand over-twee Angela-sung Undecided, a song whosetitle seems to sum up their approach to this stage oftheir career. Let Somebody In sounds flat, screechyand wasted.
Once they dispense with the string section, thingsdo improve. Runnin’ Out is full of punky energy andwhen this segues into a soft rock almostToto-ish ballad sung by Michele, thejuxtaposition doesn’t jar. They finish on a fabulouslyloud and enthusiastic version of Love Me Like You thatserves as a reminder that their rockier side isn’tnew, it’s been there all along and just needed a bitof coaxing out.
As this is the last night of a major tour, we’llforgive them the conceit of a three-song encore thatlasts nearly 20 minutes and includes the return of thestring orchestra for Take Me Or Leave Me, especiallyas it’s followed by a storming rendition of MorningsEleven. As they welcome support act Dr Dog onstage to finish on a cover of Bob Dylan‘s IShall Be Released, it becomes apparent that the encoreis a microcosm of what’s gone wrong.
Either side of the song which represents them attheir best, they’re tying too hard to pull off thebeautifully orchestrated folk-pop of Nick Drakeand the plugged in, rock out cool of Dylan, theman who dragged folk music kicking and screaming intothe modern age. One or the other might work but bothsimultaneously don’t. Unless they decide which waythey want their future to go, they’re going to findthemselves stalled at the crossroads.