Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Magic Numbers @ Hammersmith Apollo, London

18 November 2006

The Magic Numbers

The Magic Numbers

When The Magic Numbers exploded onto the music scene two years ago, they had a lot of things going for them. Their gloriously sweet, summery harmonies and love of instruments such as the melodica and mini xylophones, not usually seen outside infants school bands, offered an alternative to the ubiquitous spiky guitars ushered in by The Strokes and embraced by The Libertines. Their double helping of siblings offered its own intrigue and their uncompromising image was a two-fingered salute to the overly airbrushed divas and manufactured boy bands usually clogging up the pop charts.

They won over the world at the summer festivals and we took them to our hearts. There was a certain tweeness 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 own niche, a genuinely original band with something different to offer and a commendable attitude of take-it-or-leave-it.

This makes it all the more disappointing that tonight, in front of a sold-out crowd at Hammersmith Apollo, they don’t really seem to know who they are any more, trying alternately to be an over-produced New Seekers smothered in orchestral strings and an unreconstructed rock-out country act in the mould of Garth Brooks or even Bruce Springsteen. There’s the occasional hint of The Byrds under Gram Parsons’ influence but it’s usually confined to their older material.

Either direction, taken on its own, could lead them far but as they veer between the two, reaching to the extremes of two styles between which their first album sat comfortably, they seem genuinely Forever Lost, not sure what they want to be and, in the process, asking too much of the sound techs who can’t cope with the disparate styles their overambitious set is trying to cover.

Things start off well enough, with Michele Stodart looking fabulous in a tailored black suit half-buried beneath volumes of hair, wielding a huge bass guitar like a female Slash. This is good – rockier and more energetic than you might expect, perfect for the larger venues they can fill without problems. The new direction means that older songs such as Forever Lost and Love Is A Game take on a heavier edge; but they don’t suffer (too much) for it.

If they’ve looked at the future and decided it’s live rock outs, we can live with that. At times they’re not a million miles away from T-Rex, and Crying Shame in particular cements the idea that they’re writing songs that are designed to sound good live.

But while this works on some of the new songs, on others it doesn’t. As if feeling guilty about sometimes taking a rockier road, they’ve counted-balanced this by introducing not only strings, but strings by Robert Kirby, the man who polished up Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan and The Strawbs. Orchestral folk should be well within their remit, but somehow it falls flat on an Apollo stage that’s being asked to present the perfect sound for rock ‘n’ roll one minute and a nine-piece orchestra the next. It doesn’t work, and neither does the weak and over-twee Angela-sung Undecided, a song whose title seems to sum up their approach to this stage of their career. Let Somebody In sounds flat, screechy and wasted.

Once they dispense with the string section, things do improve. Runnin’ Out is full of punky energy and when this segues into a soft rock almost Toto-ish ballad sung by Michele, the juxtaposition doesn’t jar. They finish on a fabulously loud and enthusiastic version of Love Me Like You that serves as a reminder that their rockier side isn’t new, it’s been there all along and just needed a bit of coaxing out.

As this is the last night of a major tour, we’ll forgive them the conceit of a three-song encore that lasts nearly 20 minutes and includes the return of the string orchestra for Take Me Or Leave Me, especially as it’s followed by a storming rendition of Mornings Eleven. As they welcome support act Dr Dog onstage to finish on a cover of Bob Dylan‘s I Shall Be Released, it becomes apparent that the encore is a microcosm of what’s gone wrong.

Either side of the song which represents them at t heir best, they’re tying too hard to pull off the beautifully orchestrated folk-pop of Nick Drake and the plugged in, rock out cool of Dylan, the man who dragged folk music kicking and screaming into the modern age. One or the other might work but both simultaneously don’t. Unless they decide which way they want their future to go, they’re going to find themselves stalled at the crossroads.

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