Magic is anything but child?s play. To be a successful conjurer, one must create the illusion of achieving the seemingly impossible, executed with uncanny ease. The audience?s attention must be captivated by one theatrical display, while behind the scenes the real work takes place under wraps. And so it is with The Black Magic Show, the sophomore release from Elefant. Scratch the surface, and what the New York quartet has on offer is a riveting set of dynamic pop-rock. But as you pull back the curtain, and investigate in closer detail, it becomes apparent that the album operates on a variety of intricate levels.
Upon initial listen, what catches the ear is how much Elefant has matured since its inception. Three years of performing shows around the world has solidified the band into a tighter, tougher unit than the one behind their critically acclaimed 2003 debut Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid. The interplay between members is audible: Diego Garcia?s voice slithers over drummer Kevin McAdam?s skittish beats on "The Clown," the pulsating push-and-pull between guitarist Mod and bassist Jeff James that surges through the lead single, "Lolita."
"You can?t underestimate what touring does for a band," says Jeff. "The difference is night and day. When we made the first record, we hadn?t played out of town much. As soon as we got on the road, new worlds opened up.
It was these worlds that provided the elements from which The Black Magic Show was created, resulting in an album that is markedly more sophisticated in structure and content than its predecessor. Listen to singer/songwriter Diego Garcia?s words, the way he animates his twilight-world characters. Doling out pharmaceuticals, "The Clown" cavorts through a landscape of dark guitars. Are the "Sirens" that tug on his ear the voices of adoring sycophants, tempting him to wallow in "sunglasses and vodka in the morning," or those of the police, coming to break up the party? Stumbling in time to herky-jerky keyboards, "The Lunatic" is the last guest to leave, forgetting to hit the lights on his way out into the sunshine.
The theme that emerges from these shadows is very deliberate, explains Diego. "We really wanted to capture the feeling of late nights in New York City, and what happens after 4am."
Continue digging. Delve further into the lyrics and witness the myriad inspirations upon which Garcia draws. Masterpieces of Russian literature figured heavily in the genesis of both the title cut (which borrows from Mikhail Bulgakov?s The Master and Margarita, a story in which Satan beguiles and maddens an entire city) and "Lolita" (part drawn-from-life, part homage to Vladimir Nabakov?s infamous young temptress). There are autobiographical elements, too. Diego cites the great romantic love of his life as the wellspring for the bittersweet "Why" and the tormented "My Apology," while the cinema classic Black Orpheus gave birth to the sinuous, twisting Brasil. Elsewhere, the timeless rock tropes of sunshine and sex propel the explosive Uh Oh Hello.
Despite its debt to New York City and its manic metropolitan energy, much of the music on The Black Magic Show was originally composed on a different continent. In the winter of 2003, Diego visited South America. He started in his family home of Crdoba, Argentina, and in a moment of inspiration, bought a classical guitar. He carried the instrument with him over the course of the months that followed, as he made his way to Cartagena, Colombia and back, coaxing new melodies and ideas from it daily.
There is a very famous tango singer, the best ever, named Carlos Gardel, explains Garcia. In the 1940s, he was wearing tuxedos and singing under big spotlights. And I had a dream where I felt I embodied him, with my hand sheathed in a white glove, and I was singing into a giant microphone, before all the people in this old auditorium. So I tried to channel that vibe on a lot of these songs.
No matter what the circumstances are when Diego writes, it is only after he surrenders his songs to the rest of the band that they take on the vibrant dimensions that make them uniquely Elefant. It is at this point that often delicate, acoustic creations can blossom into hip-shaking, fist-pumping anthems. We?re all attracted to the idea of getting people to dance and move around, so we kept that in mind when Diego brought new songs to the table, says Mod. We turn these love songs into these great grooves. But not, drummer Kevin McAdams emphasizes, at the expense of the original sentiments. Our focus is always on the song, he reiterates. What benefits the song?
To capture The Black Magic Show, the quartet spent many months recording in Los Angeles, first in pre-production with Ed Buller (Suede, Pulp), and then in the studio under the helm of Don Gilmore (Duran Duran, Linkin Park, Good Charlotte). Don embraced the idea of The Black Magic Show, took each song, and made it better with his contributions, says Diego. Not only in the engineering, and in the sonic qualities, but also structurally; he introduced me to some new ideas that I had never tried. Gilmore also kept downtime the bane of the recording musician to a bare minimum. Every moment was well-spent, recording ideas and sounds, and exploring different moods.
One goal was to create a luscious, larger-than-life landscape in the songs, with production and arrangements, adds Diego. As the band approached that, enthusiasm around the process increased. The closer we came to finishing it, the more we said, This sounds like Elefant, concludes Mod.
Diego concurs. This is a definitive Elefant record, the definitive Elefant record. And they make it seem so easy. Just like magic.