Have we spoken about MAGIC HANDS here yet? Maybe in passing, when I wrote about one of Lucy Roleff’s solo sets. But that’s not enough, mates. It’s time we had a good long chat about one of the best bands in Australia.
Saturday came around. I played some music with a buddy in Brunswick, and then played some music with some pals in Preston, and got the tram back to Northcote but the busses has stopped so I walked home in the dark and the cold white streetlights, taking cuttings of succulents as I went. Once home, I inhaled a sandwich and jumped on my bike – eager not to be late in getting to that red corner Collingwood pub, the Gasometer. This show had been in my calendar for weeks, and I don’t even use a calendar.
I arrive. I chain my blue frame against a rickety carpark fence and dart into the Gaso bandroom. It’s a big, arch-topped prism of bricks, steel, wood and tin; adjoining the 1861 pub with its open fires, bluestone walls and recent vermilion paint-job. Inside the bandroom it’s dim and nightclubby. My housemate Greg appears and passes me a pint of Coopers. Superb. And minutes later, ALYX DENNISON appears on stage.
I’ve written about Alyx in this column before, when she supported Pikelet at the Toff. Tonight, she’s recruited drummer Jordie Gilmour and guitarist/accordionist Elliot Lamb to play throughout the set (last time it was more Alyx-solo-with-sporadic guests). These new consistent members – plus liberal use of textural samples and midi-synching, to bind acoustic and electronic elements – result in a performance where every sound is snugly glued together, a set that flows like a mellifluous river. There’s the folky, metamorphosing ‘Triptych’; the minimal, sanguine ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’; the stratospheric cathedral-pop of ‘Boat,’ which drops into a majestically heavy half-time climax without batting an eyelid. They close on the atmospheric, bluesy ‘Me and My Friends Lived In a Shoe,’ where John Bonham-esque drum stomp sits in artful dialogue with fluttering synths and cascading vocal melodies. Alyx Dennison’s greatest strength – the captivating versatility of her songwriting – also poses a challenge; how to bring so many diverse ideas together in a way that’s cohesive? With a more uniform approach to arrangements, a tight band and a knack for apt ambient segue, this set takes that challenge on and totally nails it.
Up next are ZONE OUT, who counterpose Alyx Dennison’s diversity with a set that’s breezily consistent in mood and sound. Theirs is a vibe that recalls the late 2000’s wave of washed-out guitar pop, from Real Estate to Best Coast to Ducktails to Vivian Girls. It’d be easy to lump them in with the current sufeit of “jangly” Melbourne bands – but Zone Out seem more informed by sepia-toned garage and echo-laden shoegaze; with their soft croons and open vowels, they’re also less self-consciously Australian than a lot of their outwardly nasal, flanneletted counterparts. Speaking of vocals, Ashley Bundang and Elizabeth Mitchell hold it down beautifully in the pipes department, providing a wash of harmony that reminds me of Perth band Dianas, while Zahra Khamissa (drums) and Dove Bailey (guitar) ace the more rhythmic, discrete components. Zone Out go down easy, like iced tea on a sunny weekend. A little more sonic adventure, and more distinct identities for each song, wouldn’t go astray in my books – but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying them, and I wager it wouldn’t stop countless dream-pop fans from lapping up their performances and recordings.
The baton is passed to MAGIC HANDS, who boast by far the most visually intriguing setup of the night: beyond a diamond of guitars, synths, samplers and stand-up percussion they’ve also mounted audio-sensitive LED light rods and a projector set to spill a dreamy sequence of images onto a sheet behind them.
If you were a glass-half-empty kind of cookie, you might infer that this elaborate display meant Magic Hands were some kind of overzealous, flamboyant, careerist local band with flashy and bombastic songs to match.
But you’d be proven wrong faster than it takes for (part-time Gasometer barman) Peter Bibby to hand me a can of Melbourne Bitter.
See, Magic Hands’ create pop tunes which trade the genre’s archetypal hook-driven approach for a subtle, slow-burn beauty. Which is not to say that these songs aren’t succinct or catchy – they’re both – but you’ll never feel condescended to, and there’ll always be plenty to discover. Peel back the layers beyond a deceptively simple veneer, and you’ll find rich harmonies, cleverly shifting chord progressions, meticulously honed timbres and crisp rhythmic ricochets.
There’s the Peaking Lights-ish, tropical plink of album opener ‘Golden Boy.’ The Beach-Housey swell of ‘Pines,’ and the gooey, Ratatat-esque production that underpins the upbeat ‘Limousine.’ Either I’m projecting, or Magic Hands’ apparent influences read like a list of much of my favourite music (possibly both) – but they can’t be reduced to a checklist of “soundalikes,” either. The core duo, Lucy Roleff and Alex Badham, have forged distinctive styles separately and the meeting of minds is equally unique; a heady alchemy of traditional folk, global vibes, lush electronica and clever indie pop. Lucy and Alex feel rather like the Kate Bush & Peter Gabriel of 2014’s Melbourne, informed by numerous pop lineages, driven by a shared tendency towards unassuming innovation (I don’t know if they’d like that particular comparison but their vocal intersections are sublime and certainly remind me of this classic jam. Meanwhile, one mustn’t ignore the contributions of live buddies Pascal Babare (acoustic percussion) and Anna Calder (vocals); they bring an organic density to the show, fill out the chemistry on stage, and step up the intensity at moments where a backing track would merely get the job done. Add to this those visuals (including cats eating their dinner, slow-motion seagulls, mystic seaside grottos and cherry pie preparation) and you’ve got an unforgettable set from these enchanted appendages. Their album “Let Me Hold You While You Fail” (what a title!) is out now, readily available on their Bandcamp; though I recommend seeking out the physical product re: Lucy Roleff’s charming gatefold illustrations. Whatever you do, get it in yer ear canals. Unless you don’t like being immersed in top-shelf forward-thinking pop-musical bliss. In which case, as you were.