The first wave of British-invasion bands in the early-to-mid-'60s featured a fair number of new traditionalists hewing close to American R&B and roots music, but since then, rock musicians from the British Isles have succeeded more as innovators and fashion plates than revivalists. The UK pop scene is littered with the likes of Texas, Gomez, and The Thrills—all good bands with more musical ties to the U.S. than to Europe, and all falling shy of greatness because of a nagging studiousness. To that list add The Magic Numbers, a much-fêted new British quartet that's been compared to the sunshine pop and cosmic Americana of The Mamas And The Papas and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The band's eponymous debut sounds earthy and real, in stark contrast to the neo-new-wave that's been dominating modern rock for the past two years. But The Magic Numbers may be ascending too quickly, given what they have to offer.
The Magic Numbers is an undeniably strong record. It's hard to imagine a grabbier opener than "Mornings Eleven," a ramshackle country-rock song with spacey doo-wop interludes and a pervasive sense of unpredictability. The second song, "Forever Lost," is even better, as the two brother-sister teams that make up The Magic Numbers coo sweetly about not letting "the sun be the one to change you" over an half-ethereal/half-upbeat instrumental track. Then comes the third song, "The Mule," which is either representative of what makes the band so special, or indicative of why it's not special enough. Like "Mornings Eleven" and "Forever Lost," "The Mule" meanders from tempo to tempo and style to style, but unlike the first two, it sounds completely undisciplined—barely a song at all.
Were it merely an aberration, "The Mule" might be a real treat: a freeform romp through cowpoke iconography and singed psychedelia. But The Magic Numbers has a lot more "Mule"s to parade around over its hourlong run time, and in spite of taut pop songs like "Long Legs" and "Love Me Like You," the album becomes increasingly hard to hold onto. The band gets lost in the feel of hippie-era California and forgets that the musicians they admire were skilled craftsmen as well as aesthetic adventurers.
Under normal circumstances, The Magic Numbers could be filed away as a good record by a promising young band. But just as the UK has a spotty track record with roots-rockers, it also has a bad habit of building up acts who pack all their virtues into a stunning debut and then quickly deteriorate. For the sake of pop fans who'd like to hear more songs like The Magic Numbers' mystically swinging "Which Way To Happy," it'll be great if the band can get its act together better on album number two. But there's plenty of reason to be doubtful.