Featherface, Actual Magic
If you listen closely enough to Actual Magic, the debut full-length from Houston-based psych-pop band Featherface, you realize suddenly that the whole thing’s going in about eight different directions all at once. And yet, they’re subtle about it — like I said, you have to listen close, and even if you do, it might just sneak past you that this isn’t yet another fuzzed-out psych-by-numbers album.
I don’t honestly have a name for what this actually is, mind you. There is that undeniable hazy, shimmery-sweet psych influence, naturally, but there’s also a heavy current of prog-rock running throughout — especially on the Chavez-tinged “Reverse, Divide” and “White Light Calls” — not to mention a bumping, funky sense of groove (see “If You Say”).
Oh, and I can’t forget the hints of alternarock in “White Light Calls,” or the Floyd-meets-California roots-rock meandering of “Withdraw,” with its freaking great, wheels-on-the-highway break bit. Add in the subversively sweet, jangly ’60s pop of “Arrangement,” which belies the harsh bitterness of the words (and morphs towards the end into harder-edged, OK Go power pop), and a surprisingly sleek, Interpol-esque feel on “Never Meant to Fall in Love,” which really caught me off-guard, and those lines start to get a little blurry.
Of course, none of it would work if it wasn’t any good, but happily, that’s not an issue. From somber-yet-warm opener “All It Took Was Actual Magic” on through the aforementioned “Reverse, Divide” — one of my favorites on here — and the appropriately poppy “Headpop,” all the way to the dancey, dismissive “Never Meant to Fall in Love” and the frantic raveup towards the end of closer “Withdraw,” the music is ridiculously great. Featherface plays with the calm, sincere confidence of a band twice their age, and that’s not something that’s easy to master.
Then, right in the middle of all of it, they hit you with “I Saw You Dancing,” and the bottom falls out of the world. The Featherface guys step sideways into a moody, practically baroque symphony of piano-inflected pop that’s dark and fragile and vulnerable, and it’s amazing. The song steps deliberately, drunkenly through the thoughts of a man who’s watched as a relationship fell to pieces and just wishes things could go back to the way they were. You can practically hear singer/guitarist Kenny Hopkins crumble as he sings. It’s a gem of a song, no two ways about it.
I’ll admit that the song, in particular, surprised the hell out of me. Here I was expecting shiny-sharp, wide-smiling psych, but what I got instead was something like an emotionally-damaged Killers playing a cover of an obscure Depeche Mode song you somehow missed back in the ’80s.
Actually, scratch that. What this really reminds me of is The Bends-era Radiohead, and stepping back for a second, that goes for the entirety of Actual Magic. See, Radiohead’s one of those bands that can literally do anything the hell they want and still sound like, well, Radiohead; once you’ve heard them, you’re never going to hear one of their songs and think you’re listening to somebody else. It’s just not possible.
And while I know it sounds like a stretch to compare this band of youngsters to one of the most influential, unique bands of the last two decades, trust me, it fits. Beyond the alchemical melding of all those disparate influences into one solid, gleaming chunk of sound, the two bands also share a penchant for oblique, thoughtful lyrics that dance carefully around what they’re talking about without ever necessarily coming close enough to touch.
To top it all off, while Featherface’s previous EP, 2010′s It Comes Electric, came off as cheery and upbeat, Actual Magic sounds down and melancholy even when it’s hopeful and defiant. There’s a darkness here, a sense that things all have to end (a vein Radiohead has mined for the entirety of the band’s existence); something’s been lost, something crushingly necessary, and it may never be coming back. So why sit on your hands and wait, doing nothing? Put on this album and sit there alone in the dark a while, instead.