Secrets of the Witching Hour
ecrets of the Witching Hour will provoke some good double takes, particularly for the uninitiated. If the album’s casting of Regina Spektor as Hamlet doesn’t trip your wires, the late-period-U2 bluster of “All Conquering” will. The Crimea are a pop band drenched in romance, and have always worn their influences with pride (witness their sublimely unironic B-side cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere”), but “All Conquering” works so hard at self-affirmation, pitting two anthemic themes against each another, one can only conclude that the ship must be sinking. Davey MacManus syllogizes “If we don’t believe we are all conquering / How shall we conquer? / If we don’t believe in ourselves / Who else is there?” with all the rhetorical flair of the heroically doomed.
MacManus has a penchant for agonized introspection, but the Crimea can be forgiven some existential angst; after a debut album on Warner Bros (the very tasty Tragedy Rocks), and an appearance on “Top of the Pops” (RIP), the band was unceremoniously dumped, in a textbook example of major label idiocy, when it became clear they were not on the fast track to Next Big Thing status. Thus it says “Internet Release” above because the band is releasing the album for free from their website. Way of the future, mark my words.
But having exorcised their demons of self-doubt on “All Conquering,” or at least given them a good pop hook to chew on, the Crimea pick up the swooning where they left off last time. MacManus’ indiscriminate pop culture fetishism is undiminished, littering his lyrics with movie titles and cultural landmarks. “Raining Planets,” MacManus’ most pensive lyric to date, trips through a whimsical piano melody while he charts the obscure decline of a indie-rock hopeful who works—“Shades down, incognito”—at Domino’s and sings into a hairbrush. The song? “Ever Fallen in Love?” …pause for a few dreamy beats… “By the Buzzcocks.” The song traipses along until it is interrupted by a glowering guitar and a traditionally OTT Crimea chorus about vultures and the end of the world.
“Man,” one of the best things on the album, suggests that as well as the Buzzcocks, they’ve been listening to Modest Mouse block-funk guitar lines, forging an unbroken backbone at the rear of the perpetual heartbreak. The band has finally worked its way through a backlog of delicious odds and ends from their early singles with “Bombay Sapphire Coma,” but MacManus sounds abashed by the delirious lyrics about fluffy clouds and hooking up, making up for it with a soccer-chant outro, singing “It’s a beautiful day to die.”
The candy-floss arrangements risk cloying at moments, at least in the internet rip. But as much as they flirt with overkill, the Crimea have a talent for puncturing their own romantic haze, with faux-innocent, throwaway choruses or Moonlight Sonata piano figures. “Requiem Aeternum,” poses as a self-important, Spanish guitar musing on death and love, then MacManus sings, in a choirboy’s tentative upper register: “Love / It keeps the goldfish swimming / Saw “Basic Instinct” when I was seventeen years old / Love / Still got the scars to show.”
Then again, there will be those who do not favor the cracking reed in MacManus’ voice; like a callow incarnation of the Dears’ Murray Lightburn, he always sounds just emerged from a monumental bout of sobbing, hoarse and tremulous, prone to sudden, inarticulate furies and fractured fits of irrational exuberance. But for the unrepentant romantics among us, Macmanus’s unappeased ache is the splintered reflection of the love-fearing adolescent in all of us, prismatic shards of joy and pain that shine equally brilliantly when he breaks his voice wide open on “Man” and album-closer “Weird.”
Witching Hour clocks in at less than forty minutes—a modest album despite the pretensions of “Several Thousand Years of Talking Nonsense.” It concludes, as all such albums must, with the apocalypse (again), as “Pterodactyls take on the helicopter gunships,” a garage-band chorus, and an ending that recalls Elbow’s Cast of Thousands, a horde chanting “The Bastard that made us all.” Too much? Absolutely, but that’s the idea. Teenage suburban Peter Pans, the Crimea inhabit the disaffected, lovesick defiance familiar to anyone who’s ever been a fourteen-year-old boy pulling the finger at the heavens.