Secret B-Sides - Easy Magic (2013)

Secret B-Sides
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Listening to the groovy retro soul pop band, The Secret B-Sides, one would swear they hailed from a coast far away from their Asheville, North Carolina home. With hippie flower power motifs and Haight-Ashbury socio-political themes, the band would be right at home in that Golden State’s progressive and artsy milieu. The fourth release from a band more known for irreverent fun and sardonic wit than seriousness, Easy Magic lacks the humor that found the band crooning lines like “Jheri Curls keeps me looking fly” on 2011’s Flowers & Chocolate. Reclining like a La-Z-Boy, the band chooses a more chilled out approach with live concert flair, ultimately earning mixed, if soothing results.

Listening to the groovy retro soul pop band, The Secret B-Sides, one would swear they hailed from a coast far away from their Asheville, North Carolina home. With hippie flower power motifs and Haight-Ashbury socio-political themes, the band would be right at home in that Golden State’s progressive and artsy milieu. The fourth release from a band more known for irreverent fun and sardonic wit than seriousness, Easy Magic lacks the humor that found the band crooning lines like “Jheri Curls keeps me looking fly” on 2011’s Flowers & Chocolate. Reclining like a La-Z-Boy, the band chooses a more chilled out approach with live concert flair, ultimately earning mixed, if soothing results.

As with some recent bands like Lake Street Dive and Electric Empire and Austin singer-songwriters like Dan Dyer, The Secret B Sides exhibit a healthy respect for the warm, organic sounds of the late ‘60s to mid-70s AM radio when staples like Bread, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and The Association ruled the air waves by straddling the fence between rock leaning pop and light soul. An accomplished four-piece multi-cultural band with five years of refinement under their belt, the group was more willing to be playful, even silly with their send-ups of yesterday’s grooves, conjuring lyrics that were sometimes political but just as often fantastical all while adeptly playing familiar chords and modernizing the past. Their willingness not to take themselves too seriously while delivering some vinegary lessons under a dollop of honey may have caused some listeners to fail to take them seriously, while still enjoying The Secret B-Sides experience. Well, with a project steeped in melancholic nostalgia and soulful soft rock, they won’t make that mistake with Easy Magic.  

Guitarist and lead vocalist Juan Holladay, drummer Robin Tolleson, bassist Shayne Heather, and keyboardist Jeff K’norr all sing, play, and know how to set a mood. The atmosphere on Easy Magic is one that is decidedly more somber and reflective than the time machine party that was Flowers & Chocolate. Produced with the openness and naturalness of a live set rather than a studio one, the music here is more about romance and relationships and dialed down for the peace of early morning or the decompression of early evening. There is the awe of love in the layered ballad “Must Be Real” but it is more whispered than shouted. Similarly, the lyrical psychedelic trip taken on “Landing Pad” is a decidedly grounded affair with the band keeping both feet planted firm, allowing the harmonics to take a brief flight during the song’s bridge. Everything here is muted but still musically tense and quietly dynamic to illustrate the band’s musicianship without being too obvious or relying on hooks.

More about the music than the lyrics and story telling, the music throughout Easy Magic spotlights the cohesiveness of the band and the members’ relationships to each other. On cuts like “Are You Music,” there are extended jam sessions parked right in the middle of the song. A mid-size instrumental shows-off the band’s interplay and musician skills but stops itself from erupting just as the song’s build and tension comes near the breaking point, keeping the cut tamed. The musicianship is strong enough to make one wonder what they would sound like in the hands of a brassier, bolder producer and engineer more committed to a studio polish.

While little here could be called infectious with only a few choruses standing out, there are moments when the verse lyrics aren’t relationship fare and hit the gut.  The crooned rap of “Thin Blue,” for instance, which through a first-person account tells the sadly commonplace story of police brutality and harassment. Even “Thin Blue” is performed about as close to a ballad as you can get with a mid-tempo cut that’s still trying to maintain its groove. Going darker in tone is the cynical light funk of “Boys & Girls,” which works to replace the blended prettiness of the men’s light vocal tones with a more aggressive bass line and a rhythm section that ably transitions to Latin-infused futuristic sounds to add some complementary heft to an observational commentary about inner city children wanting to be “pimps and hoes” and exposing corrupt politicians. Each consciousness-raising song is well crafted and thought provoking, showcasing the maturity of men known for their party.

The closest thing to a party to be found on this side of The Secret B-Sides is the reggae romp “Many Times.” Juan Holiday doesn’t bother to try for a Jamaican patois, keeping it decidedly American with elements of hip hop and New Orleans swing jazz thrown in for good measure. Meanwhile, the closest thing to a bonafide, instantly recognizable single is the smooth jazz of “It’s Raining Heaven,” a lush courtship of melody and music tenderly sung against a golden hazed sky; the cut is just lovely.

The absence of more clear-cut A-sides like “It’s Raining Heaven” among so many solid B-sides--and the call to record the project the way one would a jam session--ultimately undercuts the potential 8-Track magic of Easy Magic. Emotionally stirring at times and consistently heartfelt, the decision to sonically craft a serious, blue-toned album from start to finish wasn’t necessarily a bad way to signal a new musical direction for a band looking to evolve and stretch in ways that expand their repertoire. Many artists have done so successfully -- Billie Holliday’s legendary Lady in Satin and, more recently, The Foreign Exchange’s sobering Authenticity immediately come to mind. But, penetrating hooks, production prowess, and unforgettable melodies matter even more on such often quietly emotional material. The saving grace is four musicians whose impressive skills and sincerity make for a relaxing musical experience; if only you were left with something a bit more memorable to hum by your journey’s end.  Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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