Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Cuddle Magic – Info Nympho – FYO 5

Not as huggable as they seem.

Published on April 23, 2012

Cuddle Magic – Info Nympho – FYO 5

Cuddle Magic – Info Nympho – FYO 5, 41:38 ***:

(Alec Spiegelman – clarinet, bass clarinet, vocals, guitar, harmonica, flute; Ben Davis – bass, guitar, vocals, ukulele, banjo; Bridget Kearney – bass; Christopher McDonald – Rhodes electric piano, guitar, vocals, vibraphone, keyboards; Cole Kamen-Green – trumpet, percussion; Dave Flaherty – drums, vibraphone, glockenspiel; Kristin Slipp – vocals, glockenspiel; Lucy Railton – cello; Max Haft – violin; Mike Calabrese – banjo, drums, percussion; Phyllis Chen – toy piano, music box, hand bells (track 2))

The chamber-pop songwriting collective Cuddle Magic is a curiosity. On one hand, the ten-member ensemble wants to be an indie pop outfit akin to early Sufjan Stevens (think Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State) or an unplugged version of The Arcade Fire. On the other hand, though, Cuddle Magic has superior musical command with complex instrumentation which showcases various academic musical backgrounds (the assemblage formed five years ago in Boston at the New England Conservatory). This dichotomy or band dictum is apparent throughout Cuddle Magic’s third release, Info Nympo, issued independently last year and now available as CD, digital download and vinyl thanks in part to the FYO label.

The band’s name originates from how the group prefers to perform in intimate surroundings (house parties, small venues, coffee houses, etc.) where barriers between artist and audience tend to disappear. That ambiance permeates Info Nympho’s nine tracks, which were recorded with all ten musicians in one room playing at the same time. Despite the live atmosphere, engineer Bryce Goggin provides a fully detailed production, where overlapping instruments (everything from toy piano to trumpet) and intersecting vocals are finely spaced and layered with consideration and concentration.

The album commences with “Disgrace Note,” penned by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Ben Davis (who shares Stevens’ style of singing) and his brother Tim Davis (a poet and visual artist) partially in response to the suicide of cult-oriented, alternative singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. The classically-tinged litany of absent souls is a melancholic and disconcerting inventory of notable people who gave into their inner turmoil, including saxophonist Albert Ayler and author Richard Brautigan. The song has a sophisticated polyphony with interlocking phrase cycles which were constructed from a mathematical diagram which included 24 phrases of 36 beats, three phrases of 64 beats, 96 beats and 128 beats. While Davis intones objective lines about George Eastman, Arthur Koestler, Diane Arbus and others, drums, horns and wheezing melodica build a minimalist/modern classical groove while strummed instruments form a rustic folk undertow. While the arrangement has a dynamic engagement, the lyrical absence of emotional attachment runs counter to the list of lost lives: listeners don’t know if they should mourn or just knowingly nod at who is recognized, a similar issue which plagues Billy Joel’s bleak checklist “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

Psychological damage and mental obsession hue through other pieces, as well. Kristin Slipp’s quasi-classical “Hoarders” taps into obsessive-compulsive disorder. The eloquently lean arrangement circles around a persistent, Philip Glass-esque half-measure played via stacked female vocals, prepared piano, glockenspiel and brass. In this case, Slipp’s lyrics manage to encompass the hazards of hoarding physical objects as well as thoughts, emotions or memories, during a tale of a spouse willing to live with her husband’s pattern of excessive behavior in order not to be alone. Less impressive is “Moby Dickless,” which is narrated by an unreliable mental patient who exhibits characteristics of Captain Ahab’s crazed passion for a white whale but who also cites another entity of unhinged desire, Lolita. While the words lack depth or charisma they do have an appropriately unbalanced quality, and the repeating musical cycles (via horns, strings and keyboard) and strict rhythmic aspects develop a Steve Reichian pop element which provides continuity. Several other cuts also suffer from textual indifference: it is significant that the group members seem more focused on mantra-like incantations mostly disconnected from lyrical insight, and too often succumb to deficient poetry, such as during “Autobiographies” (where the album title is derived from) or “Baby Girl,” a tribute to a pit bull rescued from negligence. This song is a suitable example of Cuddle Magic’s conundrum. Instrumentally, the tune is intricate but also accessible. All of the parts incorporate exact subsets of a single 21-note cycle, either expressed overtly on guitar or hinted within the grouping of vocals, horns and strings. The solo toy piano intro by guest Phyllis Chen (who also adds music box and hand bells) is based on looser iterations of the same cycle. But there is a paucity of lyrical skill which counteracts the musical intelligence: in other words, the words really get in the way and do not offer a comparable level of perception to the music. Info Nympho has its moments but overall is not masterful.

TrackList:  Disgrace Note; Baby Girl; Jason; Hoarders; Moby Dickless; Autobiographies; Marie Cardona; Handwrit; Again.

—Doug Simpson




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