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Piano Magic | The Troubled Sleep of Piano Magic (Green UFOS)
Bloodied but unbowed by a short-lived and ill-fated stint on 4AD, which yielded only one proper album (2002's 'Writers Without Homes'), Piano Magic return with a new label, yet another membership revision and arguably their strongest, most affecting set of songs to date. Whereas before Glen Johnson (Piano Magic's reluctant master of ceremonies and the band's only constant member and songwriter) has previously hid himself behind the fog of poetic lyricism and under the bushel of a revolving set of musical collaborators, this time around things are personal. Stripping away the studied studio layers which made 'Writers Without Homes' such an ordeal for the band to construct, in favour of a five- or six-piece band set-up (similar to the one used on 2000's superb 'Artists' Rifles'), has undoubtedly given more precision and potency to the musical beddings. And, in sharing vocal duties with 'honorary member' Angèle David-Guillou, Johnson seems even more open to baring his soul, though without any downturn in his lyrical eloquence.

The stark stall is set from the very start with the sublime Saint Marie, as Johnson whispers with self-descriptive deprecation, in near a cappella fashion, "Out of season / Out of heart," before the band whip up a soaring wave of shimmering guitars and crisp digital drums, which swerve between the speakers in deliciously disorientating fashion. The Unwritten Law follows in a more pastoral setting, as David-Guillou intones some insomnia-wracked thoughts with jaw-dropping grace; "How can you sleep / With my heart so loud? / I could scream in a jar / Like the sound of a crowd." The heartache continues on the stunning Speed The Road, Rush The Lights (reprised from the recent EP of the same name), in which Johnson enunciates the rage and mental strain incurred by a long-distance relationship. "Geography be kind to me / For the miles apart are killing me / Tonight I would die to be by your side," he murmurs before unleashing the full force of Piano Magic's guitar/bass/drum/synth artillery as previously deployed on the deadly brilliant (Music Won't Save You From Anything But) Silence (the sole racket-making moment from 'Writers Without Homes').  David-Guillou guides the band back on to calmer musical seas, with the ambient shades of Help Me Warm This Frozen Heart, but her vocals are so chillingly lachrymose that the effect is equally as unsettling.

Things plunge into deeper and darker waters as Johnson takes on vocal duties for the weighty centre section of the record. On the bleakly beguiling I Am The Teacher's Son, a lifetime's worth of regret raises to the surface, though with more oblique wordplay than used elsewhere on the record, "Wrote a novel in my twenties / Though it never left my head / A thousand words a sentence / Until all the characters were dead." Cavernous and desolate drums usher in the vicious discontent that is barely concealed in The End Of A Dark, Tired Year, as Johnson turns on the city he currently calls home; "London is fucked / A busted bike with rusted gears." The eerie violins which drive The Tollbooth Martyrs are sad and mournful enough already, before Johnson delivers a poignant eulogy to lives sucked into dead-end occupations; "From college to dole / To tollbooth cashier / Live their lives through diaries."  Johnson says it all on When I'm Done, This Night Will Fear Me, when he sings "Black just got blacker" as his band move things along at a grinding funereal pace. The languorous and lurching Luxembourg Gardens (also a former EP cut) draws together the album's cyclical feelings of anger, loss and longing as Johnson and David-Guillou duet with disturbing openness. But it's the closing Comets that really marks out 'The Troubled Sleep of...' as Piano Magic's most profound (and arguably best) full-length release. Over a bare electronic throb on a light bed of acoustic guitars, David-Guillou delivers the heart-lodged-in-throat lines "You should always tell them you love them / In case you never see them again" with a ghost-like wisdom in her voice.

Troubling this album maybe, but a disappointment it is not. If it were to be the last ever Piano Magic album (as the press release alarmingly implies) then there really couldn't be a more fitting and formidable epitaph to this great band than this utterly spellbinding collection of bittersweet and savagely beautiful songs.

Adrian Pannett
November-December 2003