The Magpies website proclaims them to be indiefolkrockrevivalist in genre, and since I find that to be a pretty apt description, I’m not going to bother to think up another. True, these guys will rock your face off if given half a chance, but their musicality keeps them from being swept neatly into the “rock” category. More than anything, they are deft storytellers and as such, they neatly sidestep the cliché traps of the indie rock and singer/songwriter genres to create something wholly their own. Between the solid rhythm section, the maniacal genius of Justin Gorski’s piano playing, and the soulful, whiskey-rough edge of Roger Hoover’s vocals, you aren’t given much of a choice but to sit up and pay attention. The Magpies are one of those rare bands that are both musically and lyrically brilliant, and their newest album, Eastern Standard Time showcases this beautifully.
Because the music itself is so immediately likable, it’s easy to enjoy the album immensely without actually stopping to listen to the lyrics, which I did on my first several times through it. When I did start to focus on the lyrics, the experience was akin to being engrossed in a really good book– you come out of it feeling a little dazed at having to return to the real world. [I still haven’t decided if I want to come out of it. I could stay happy in a Magpies daze for a long time.—Cricket]
Each song tells its own story, the full and complex sound coupled with concise, well-crafted lyrics serve to create vivid mental images to go along with the musical narrative with little effort on the listener’s part. As with any good collection of short stories, there are layers of subtext and themes throughout the album that are sure to please the more active listener. (I’m not going to lie, this album appeals to my inner English major in a serious way. I have notes here about the story structures and the intense desire to write a five-paragraph essay… It’s fantastic!)
The opening track, “Picture Me in a Love Song,” has a joyful and infectious melody juxtaposed with lyrics like, “Time has been standing since last I laid hands on you/ We’ve got no history/ No place to go back to.” The result is a feeling of euphoric wistfulness that you get with having a shiny, new crush on someone completely unattainable– that visceral giddy feeling tempered with the knowledge that it’s always going to be unrequited. This song always gives me said happy-achy feeling, but without the unfortunate side-effect of me acting like a moron. So, y’know. Bonus!
“Hotel Receipt” is an anti-love song about a one night stand that doesn’t try to romanticize it. The waltz feeling of the music underscores the idea that this is a dance the narrator’s familiar with. Yet, with lines like, “Yesterday was a coal mine/ and you the only light” and the delightfully dirty, “My mind was stuck in your fishnets the rest of the day,” it manages to capture a lingering sweetness that keeps it from being something tawdry. The story here is past tense, subtly highlighting the theme of loneliness that is threaded throughout the album. [There is melancholy and vague sense of loss throughout and yet, damn, this album makes me happy.—Cric]
There is a vaguely eerie, timelessness to “Girl on the Hill.” Perhaps saying that it is a gothic romance is going too far. My initial instinct was to make a comparison to A Rose For Emily, not because the song is anywhere near that creepy, but because both the lyrics and the music are so evocative that you find yourself dwelling in the story long after it is over. The twinkly piano has the effect of a mental blue lens, from its opening notes it gives the song a sort of stark, compelling sadness that carries through to the reveal at the end.
My favorite song off EST is “Umbrella Skeleton & the Olds 442.” There’s an old-timeyness to it– the sense of a bygone era–that just fills my heart with glee. The protagonist dressed in a shirt, tie and vest. Perhaps a dapper cap? Everything about it just works, though I think it’s ultimately a combination of the lyrics and Roger Hoover’s vocals and phrasing that make it stand out to me:
Smoke the rest of last night’s cigarette
Pull the razor cross his face careful not to cut his lip
Got a pocket full of silver dollars his red shoes out of pawn
Pomade curling in his hair
He turns the radio off
His door opens to the dark
He’s cutting through the fog
He’s looking razor sharp
Puts his keys in his Olds 442
While I hate to quote such a large chunk of the song, the first verse here appeals so much to my love of language that I have to (particularly, “He’s cutting through the fog/ He’s looking razor sharp,” sofa king good that I had to go and quote it twice).
“Elizah Jane”, like “Girl on the Hill” is musical storytelling at its best. The opening verse, with just the guitar and Hoover’s vocals, sets a darkly atmospheric, vaguely ominous tone that is carried out in lyrics as the tragedy of the story unfolds. There’s also a feeling of the supernatural intertwined with the South that’s reflected in lines like, “Tried faith healers and forceps/ Gypsy medicine and night.” You can almost feel the swampy heat of a southern summer night.
“Tomorrow Wears a Thorny Crown” serves as just one more reminder of what brilliant musicians these guys are. Part one starts out slow and contemplative (indeed, I often find myself contemplating, “How is Roger Hoover’s voice so ridiculously sexy?”), and then they go and dial it up to eleven. With alternating vocals and time signatures, this part just rocks in a way that few bands seem to manage these days.
Whether you’re listening to one of the infectious, toe-tapping dance numbers or the epic tragedies, Eastern Standard Time is crafted with an ear for melody, language, and rhythm that makes me giddy and weak in the knees. In their current incarnation (Gorski’s addition and their name change from The Whiskeyhounds), these boys are just getting started, so I foresee much more knee weakening goodness to come.
Knowing now how I feel about this album, you can imagine my overwhelming delight at this past Friday night’s Magpies show in Nashville with special last-minute guest Cory Branan. Because here at HCT HQ we occasionally have weekends that make me think the universe is trying to atone for all the things we complain about having to do in the daily grind to support our rock-chick lifestyle.
Really, I had been looking forward to this show since the last time they were here, and while my expectations tend to get a tad bit unrealistic when I’m that excited about something, the Magpies were able to exceed them, not even factoring in Mr. Branan’s charming and delightful presence. A regular HCT reader might recall that Cory was the one who originally brought the Magpies to our attention, and for that I feel we owe him a debt of gratitude.
This is our fourth time seeing the Magpies live, and there are three things that I invariably want to do post-show. The first is my brief but serious contemplation of the logistics of following them to the next town to see them play again, which is of course foiled by my utter exhaustion (and, in this instance, the Great Nashville Gas Crisis of 2008). The second is to rehash with Cricket how awesome the show was, and how much I freakin’ love these guys, quite often in the form of questions like, “Remember when the Magpies were here, and they played ‘Blueberry Wine?’ That was awesome!” à la The Chris Farley Show.
The third thing I want to do, with all the zeal of a convert, is find new people to… well, convert. As with Lucero and Cory Branan before them (perhaps even more so), this is one of those bands where I feel that it’s not enough to just say, “Hey, check these guys out!” I want to personally put the album in someone’s hand, have them listen to it with their undivided attention, and then come back to me and say, “You’re totally right! Best band ever!!!” Partially because I love being told I’m right, but mostly because they are just that good (Confession: This is totally why I offer to drive places, so that I can make people listen to the music I think they ought to love). Unfortunately, this is perhaps not the most efficient way to go about things– if only I had some platform to get my absurdly effusive message out to the masses… [If only…–Cricket]
I’m sure that more than a few people walked away from Friday night’s Nashville show with a new favorite band. Unfortunately, unless you’re living somewhere around Cleveland, you probably aren’t going to get the chance to see them live until sometime next year. So go ahead and get Eastern Standard Time (and then kick yourself if you had the opportunity to see them and you didn’t). Then come back and tell me how much you love them.