Piano Magic – Artists’ Rifles

Piano Magic perversely insist on releasing their records as Summer approaches: last year’s masterpiece of filigree loneliness, Low Birth Weight, came out at the height of that boisterous season, and it wasn’t until November that I twigged what a beautiful record it was. Now Artist’s Rifles slips out in the middle of May: even though I’m primed for something waiflike and frosted, it still feels odd to be walking along Piccadilly in a thick polluted heat, listening to these crisp Autumnal guitar runs and the drums’ clipped shudders. But Piano Magic are good enough that you want the season to change, not them.

They are a serious band but a special one, and for that you can forgive them a lot that might damn artists with less gracefulness or distance: Artist’s Rifles is in great part about the First World War, it contains lyrics like “Paris, she bleeds night into her cup”, and Glen Johnson sings occasionally like an Edwardian Brian Molko. It’s an Art Record, and no mistake. Contrary to popular belief, though, I am not a complete philistine – the ambition isn’t what stops me liking the weightier moments of, say, Floyd or Genesis, it’s the risible failure of their records to come anywhere achieving the lofty goals they seem to set themselves. Piano Magic are more modest in sound, some degree more intelligent, and I’m pleased to say that their records are excellent. I know a lot of people who distrust ‘clever’ pop music on principle, and I’d agree as long as the pop musicians aren’t genuinely being clever.

I’m going through these defensive gyrations because I’m a little surprised at how much I like Piano Magic, and especially this album. Low Birth Weight dazzled partly because it was a codex of English underground talent, or at least the more polite end of that talent – ISAN, the Bitter Springs, Baby Birkin, all excelling themselves to craft simple, memorable and original songs. On Artist’s Rifles, Glen Johnson has let those props be taken away, and Piano Magic are more of a fixed band than they’ve been for a while, with his voice dominating and with a lot less of the effect play and quiet beat exploration that gave the last album its subsurface kick.

But once you get used to the voice, this grows into a more coherent and more quickly enjoyable record. On previous albums cues were taken from shoegazer drift and Disco Inferno modernism: now Piano Magic seem most influenced by the Durutti Column’s measured ache and solemn prettiness, and it’s an influence which suits them: “You And John Are Birds” and “The Index” are precious in both senses of the word, precocious and fragile songs which seem wispy at first but also delicate and mysterious. Artist’s Rifles is the first Piano Magic to never really toy with the threat of dissonance or noise – even on Low Birth Weight their experimentalist reputation preceded them, but here there’s no sense that Johnson was even tempted to spike the music in that way – the superb “Password” builds to a climax of sorts, but otherwise everything chimes like sensitive clockwork. If I have a worry about Artist’s Rifles, indeed, it’s that Piano Magic might ultimately go the way of Vini Reilly’s band, making pretty but unmemorable records for a dwindling core fanbase – although presently, that day seems a way off.

As for the theme, to be honest you hardly notice it once you’ve put the elegant CD insert down and started listening – Glen Johnson has always been a consumptive miserabilist, and singing about non-metaphorical death doesn’t change his outlook much. “No Closure”‘s chorus seems heavy-handed (“closure” is a horrid word anyhow, which can’t help), but the war references add a sense of history and dread to other tracks, and are anyhow kept vague: the most felt lines on the album needn’t be talking about war at all. “Forget the past, repeat the past….I started last and I finished last.”. At ease, soldier.