Piano Magic’s Seasonally Affective

Memory: winter, 1986. I am eight years old. Snow has been falling since six p.m.; I wake – compelled awake, no less – sometime after midnight, peering with squinty eyes through a slatted blind. There is nothing but white, white stretching outward on the ground, white blotting out the sky, the moon, the stars. But something…moving. Lost out there, in the storm. A cat, perhaps? Yes, yes, it must be. Some small animal, must be.

I run downstairs, throwing the door open, and out into the snow. The moment I step outside, I know it’s a mistake; I’m swallowed by the storm, whipped by the wind, snow clouding my eyes, bare feet burning from the cold. I stumble blindly, struck immediately by the fear that I will die out here, not ten feet from my house, frozen to the ground when discovered by my parents the next morning. Suddenly, however, I’m borne aloft by strong hands. I blank out.

Morning, and I’m convalescing amidst the warmth of piled blankets and the hiss of the radiator. Outside, the snow has stopped and it rings the rooftops and downspouts. I drift back to sleep, having half forgotten the tiny animal already. Downstairs, there is the smell of coffee and the sound of adults doing adult things. Time enough for that later. Time enough.

My mother still scoffs when the story above comes up; she doesn’t believe it happened. I’m not entirely unsure that I didn’t dream it myself. That seems hardly relevant. Even in it’s hazy, half-formed logic, it’s etched more vividly in my mind than my 12th birthday or what I had for dinner last night. I will carry that memory with me always, “true” or not.

Piano Magic is a lot like that.

They exist between waking and sleeping, a place where borders become irrelevant, as fluid as a cell wall, as gauzy as an ether hallucination. They’re the passage to Narnia. They’re Blakean visions trapped in a broken-down sampler. They’re smoke rising from an alley after dusk. They’re the smell of yellowed book pages in the stacks of an abandoned library. And a lot of other pretentious things besides. They’re also a band, although that too seems hardly relevant. They’re my favorite band in fact (for the moment – favorites are typically fickle loves), not a prize doled out carelessly.

The sound world their creaky electronics and leaf-brittle guitars call up is one of wind-up gewgaws and wooden dolls, Sunday painter works found in second hand shops, surrealist ephemera cluttering the dusty window display of a used book store. They tap into several lineages, simultaneously. There’s the Olde English provincialism of Current 93 and late-period Coil, the industrial/electronic experimentation of Nurse With Wound and the Aphex Twin at his most reserved and foreboding, the ethereal yet crunching bliss rock of early My Bloody Valentine, and the fey confessionals of twee indie-pop.

Seasonally Affective collects those limited edition, fetishist singles indie bands are so fond of, released between 1996-2000. It’s a treasure trove, acting both as a completists wet-dream and an entryway for the merely curious; all the styles above are found here, a Whitman’s Sampler of the Piano Magic messthetic. The packaging – as always – is superb in its quiet unease: a musty, mouldy board game (?), creepy clowns from a second rate Lewis Carroll collection leering from the front cover. Like the music, it’s at once mildly unsettling and comfortingly familiar. (Their 1998 masterpiece-to-date Low Birth Weight featured a sleeve full of cute n’ morbid taxidermy dressed up for show like a still from a Brothers Quay film.)

The record nods to the pastoral un-pop of Brian Eno circa Another Green World; like AGW, Seasonally Affective is largely an instrumental record masquerading as a vocal one. The concerns of those fleeting, few words seem modern enough (“I was baking when he kissed me; I rubbed flour in his hair”) even as they’re couched in antiquation and the “other.” In many ways, Piano Magic are the autumnal answer to the lush Anglo-exotica of AGW, ruddy reds and browns rather than verdant greens. Eno’s record featured such invented instruments as the Snake Guitar, the Desert Guitar, and the Uncertain Piano. They’re instruments you might expect to find in Piano Magic’s cupboards.

Seasonally Affective contains more wonders than it is possible to catalogue in the space of this review. “Wrong French” marries the domesticity recounted above with keening, swaying electronics. “For Engineers AA” is a mini-concerto for ships-hull percussion and wind-up bird. “I Am the Sub-Librarian” verges on saccharine, so perfectly observed in its poignancy, saved only by the small-detail care. (“A steady diet of Brautigan/’Tapestry’ on the Walkman.”) “Music For Annahbird” is a cousin to Matmos: the warm, funny guts of a Rube Goldberg construction come to life. “Music For Wasps” on the other hand is as cold as an ice floe at 3 a.m., cold as the coldest Thomas Koner driftscape. “French Mittens” is echoing dream pop in the best AR Kane tradition, all swirling texture and the distant sound of roaring feedback. “The Biggest Lie” is ragged, wayward psyche-folk, equal parts Neil Young, The Fairport Convention, and Roky Erikson.

This year saw the release of Piano Magic’s soundtrack to Son De Mar (a self-cannibalization of their earlier Bliss Out Vol. 13.) It also saw their move to 4AD, home to slicked-up, camera-ready versions of their influences and antecedents. The new label has already sent a shiver of fannish concern through the underground; would distribution to the Tower Records and features in the Spins of the world dilute their hearth-warmed charm? Although anything is (often sadly) possible in music, I doubt it. If anything, the push of Piano Magic to a wider audience – in a world where “indie” equates with the moribund parochialism of Ameri-emo – is cause for celebration.

Singles are often the most telling way to get at the true heart of what a band is “about”; freed from the need to make a grand and over-arching statement on the canvas of The Album, they can experiment, perfect, and tinker. Piano Magic genuinely benefit from their revolving door collective policy (dozens upon dozens of members in the last half-decade, all masterminded under the aegis of Glenn Johnson); the visions and obsessions of a network of dreamers are given voice. Seasonally Affective is a lens with which to view them all, a kaleidoscope recorder for the blissfully futile task of quoting a dream.