Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Magnetic North - Aqualung

Magnetic North

Verve Records.

SCQ Rating: 73%

Matt Hales, the Brit behind the curtain of Aqualung, has been an unpredictable surprise for SCQ in recent years; his 2007 game-changer Memory Man found his syrupy rep taking on a sinister understanding of electronic-rock, not to mention making a gift for my girlfriend suddenly a gift for myself. Hales is also a bit of a paradox for this particular writer, my praise launched at dark-horse sophomores countered by a wrath (in the form of this open letter) spewed toward his subsequent backpeddling. The accused, 2008’s Words & Music, felt less like a half-hearted collection of cutesy, white picket-fence singalongs and more like bittersweet justification on my behalf that Aqualung’s deserving spot on this website (Memory Man landed respectively on SCQ’s Top Twenty of 2007, even) was born of fluke.

Magnetic North proves otherwise, clarifying Words & Music’s sub-album classification in its very press-release and citing this as the official follow-up to Memory Man. Now that’s more like it! And Hales makes good on his crafty rewriting of history with a collection of tight melodic songwriting that, like that 2007 surprise, marries the sincere with the cloying, the studio polish with the piano balladry. ‘New Friend’ earns its title thanks to a small army of Hales friends’ singing over its refrain, even if it’s hopelessly hackneyed, while surefire single ‘Fingertip’ over-romanticizes every cliché. Yet the majority of it works, given you check your cynicism at the door, and gains credibility next to Aqualung’s more somber offerings. The combination of Hales’ Bono-with-range vocals and delicate piano immediately raises hairs on the succinct ‘California’, the relationship-on-edge-of-collapse meditation ‘Remember Us’, and – perhaps one of this year’s finest songs - ‘Sundowning’. Although it lacks the spirited experimentation that shaded Memory Man with urgent undertones, Magnetic North showcases Aqualung’s softer takes on love and longing; ultimately Hales’ safer side.

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