February 8, 2007

A Twisted Vision

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One of the best ways to go about finding new music that suits your tastes is going by record label, and Chicago’s Drag City, founded less than two decades ago, is always a good place to start. Home to both well-known staples, like Stereolab, or the Silver Jews, and incredibly eclectic more minor acts, like the High Llamas, Palace Music, and Bonnie “Prince Billy,” one of the label’s more recent addition is White Magic, a product of the budding Brooklyn music scene.

White Magic counts its band membership on a rotating basis, but on this new album Dat Rosa Mel Apibus founding member Mira Billotte has seemed to add the constant presence of guitarist Sleepy Doug Shaw. While Billotte still writes almost all of the music and lyrics, her soulful voice floats much better above the support of creative musicians like Shaw. Probably the album’s best songs come from the collaboration of these two; Billotte’s vocal range and basic piano skills are well matched with Shaw’s spontaneous adaptability – he’s just as good picking out flamenco rhythms on acoustic as he is as flooding a track with those melt-in-your-melt electric riffs.

White Magic, for one, certainly offers us a unique sound beyond the music. A closer look at Billotte’s lyrics and the arts she includes in the album’s liner notes begs us to consider two things: what the world could, or was like, and what the world is like. Juxtaposed images of symmetrical, complete designs and the same design broken and stamped with a subtle corporate logo drive at the album’s best qualities. A sense of nostalgia is evoked here, but not in the way we normally think of it. The music hardly bemoans modernity, or cites its every flaw — of which there are many. But the unadulterated mastering of the instruments — the reliance on raw sound rather than processors, ProTools and synth-heavy tracks — points out that its still possible to further what might be could a purer existence in an age where many are obsessed with our now-global problems like massive war, pollution and a miserable sense of alienation.

What the album lacks, therefore, is not a unified vision. Rather, Dat Rosa Mel Apibus is missing the soundtrack to the ideology. On another album that can’t help but come to mind, Brightblack Morning Light’s recent self-titled release, creative partners R.A. Hughes and N.D. Shineywater made sure that they hired to best musicians in the world — like soul legends the Staples Singers or the gorgeous, cult bassist and guitarist Paz Lenchantin — and then wrote crisp melodies and the harmonies they required. The result is astounding — Brightblack Morning Light is so tight in its musicianship it can hardly be criticized on that level.

Here, tracks inconsistently wander on minutes longer than they should, rhythms change with annoying frequency, and the melodies seem to be afterthoughts. That’s not to say there aren’t stand-outs on the album — the problem is what comes in between them.

Nevertheless, Dat Rosa Mel Apibus is intriguing in enough other ways, and on the few fantastic tracks throughout, that it will be exciting to see what Mira Billotte can come up with next.