The Magic Whispers
Carousels & Music Boxes
roducers Mateo Guiscafré and Ramón Leal swiped a manifesto once scrawled on crinkly letterhead, taped to the side of a beat-up piano in a deep-carpeted, Brill Building cubicle. The gist of this document reads: find females with honeyed voices; assemble a catalog of catchy songs that runs the emotional gamut from sheer teenage delight to sheer teenage dolor, but above all else, focuses on The Boy; promptly produce.
Three easy steps, often repeated to perfection during the girl group era of the early 1960s. However, Guiscafré and Leal offer a slight twist: Unlike the Brill Building's songwriting/production tandems, which catapulted countless acts to pop superstardom with original material, Guiscafré and Leal deal with pre-released, indie pop constructs (save for the occasional Carole King or Shirelle track). Add in the established wrens beckoned to do the vocal work—Ana Laan, who also releases music under the name Rita Calypso, and Natalia Ferrán, from Bathing Beauty—and on paper, this entire project has quite the appealing sheen. Two ladies with the shimmering pipes of new wavers Strawberry Switchblade piroutetting through they-call-it-puppy-love-style tracks by esoteric bands such as Fantastic Something and Coloring Book, and the entire production is sealed with a girl-group kiss? Hell yes—where do I sign?
So where in the name of Shadow Morton did it all go wrong?
When studying that aforementioned manifesto, Guiscafré and Leal glossed over the most essential tenet: The producer grabs you, but it's up to the singer(s) to win your heart. The production and gorgeous, textured instrumentation (primarily handled by the versatile Leal) is tops, with the pair dropping fresh ice into a number of now tepid pop cocktails. However, Laan and Ferrán—despite all their silvery-throated flair—don't follow suit, missing that emotive bullseye as often as they land it, and the end result is an album wrought with frustrating inconsistency.
Start with one of the better selections, the BMX Bandits' "Carousel," a song that took the Scottish group's smiling naivety to new heights: dinky carnival music, the screeches of teenage girls on hastily assembled amusements, vocalist Douglas Stewart expressing a desire to watch the rides, rather than partake, for fear of turning green. Guiscafré and Leal abstain from adding their own cute flourishes, stripping the song down to its most basic elements. Such a minimalist approach requires vocal fireworks from Laan and Ferrán, but all they deliver is a hissing dud.
The singing on Po!'s "Appleseed Alley—one of the album's treats thanks to its Shel Silverstein-like couplets ("If you swallow apple seeds / You'll have a baby tree and you'll be dead")—is too ripened, missing a certain blind innocence. And Coloring Book's "Time to Grow" should further the full-length's central theme of teenage amour, with lyrics such as, "Are you scared of how you make me feel / Stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel." Instead, the listless vocals sound like the lass was turned away for not making the ride's height requirement.
The most brilliant cover on Carousels & Music Boxes is a tad surprising. When the Shirelles released the classic "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" in 1960, the subject matter of teenage sexual doubt was both polarizing and brutally honest. In today's world of carnal frankness, the song's initial power is lost, so the Magic Whispers take a different approach: the cover is welling with melancholia (the bits of mawkish electric guitar certainly help)—no words of imprecation for dreamboat Bobby, only sighed, pillow-clutched-to-chest pining.
The warm composure in "Meet Me Again" is another highlight, calling to mind eminent predecessors like Marine Girls. The hush-hush vocals from The Mosquitoes' "Blue Heart" are all clarion intensity when handled by Laan and Ferrán; sonically, the song has a more Siddeleys-like bounce. And "Drawing Rooms," with its softly undulating guitar and synth, possesses a nymphish tenderness that was too forced in Fantastic Something's male-driven original.
Strong covers with restored acuity, sure, but they're not enough to make up for the album's misses, which will have listeners scrambling to procure the originals.