As the sweet and wondrous sound of Jane Sinnott's voice floats through 14 songs on a musical bed made of equal parts folk, country, and good old rock racketeering, the Magick Heads carry the listener away with their second Flying Nun album, Woody.
It's a musical brew that proves the Magick Heads to be pop alchemists of the highest order, but also shows them to be a group whose many and varied stylistic impulses are all subservient to the good cause of the Song.
The band's principal songwriter since the Magick Heads' inception six years ago has been guitarist/vocalist Robert Scott (already an accomplished writer in The Clean and The Bats and no stranger to a powerful tune). Woody, however, is a more collaborative writing effort from the band than their first album, Before We Go Under (1994) and shows a distinctive sound emerging. This is aided in no small part by Jane Sinnott's ever-increasing guitar proficiency and the dependable support of the Strang brothers rhythm section (drummer Jim was on the first album; bassist Richard joined shortly after its completion).
That leaves guests David Mitchell (3Ds guitarist) and Alan Starrett (with an instrument for every moment, including violin, hammer dulcimer, cello and accordion) to add more colour and the occasional rough edge to the songs. Although with the band's tight performance and the marvellously polished instrument that is Jane's voice out front, there's an intimate feel to the songs and moments like the guitar-heavy "Take It On Down" are rare.
If you're looking for comparisons, Australia's often-overlooked Triffids might be a good place to start. The 'edge of the continent' feel that Perth gave the Triffids is hinted at by the geography of these tunes ("On the Rocks", "12,000 Miles", "Particularly Nasty Weather") written in another isolated musical centre, Dunedin. And the lonely observations of two of the stand-out tracks here - "Who's Watching Out For You" and "Mystery Train" - make for sturdier cousins of the Triffids' fragile classic "Raining Pleasure".
Over the course of its 14 songs, the album's considerable charms seep right in. And in an age where so much of what passes for pop music is made of clamour and clatter, the warmth of the Magick Heads' approach is more than welcome around these parts.
We asked Dunedin renaissance man Roy Colbert, who claims to be their smallest and biggest fan both, for a comment or two on the Magick Heads. Here's what he has to say about the band (and Chris Knox!):
"The Magick Heads? Well, when they started they were three things, Bob Scott's wonderful pop songs, the unique sight of David Mitchell on drums, and a lovely new voice in town called Jane Sinnott. So it was kinda nice and kinda weird. Jane seemed to sing about two octaves higher than anyone else, and when you listened to her on tape, she seemed an octave further up again. And she danced weird on stage, not like any of the other Flying Nun women at all. I've never seen Natalie Merchant from 10,000 Maniacs, but I've read interviews with her, and I betcha she floats around a bit like Jane. I asked Jane not so long ago what she was listening to, and she said Tiger Lily by Natalie Merchant was really setting her tent on fire. Okay.
"The years went by, David Mitchell moved on - as did fellow 3D David Saunders - and Jane's voice seemed to drop down a little, or maybe we all got used to it. One of Flying Nun's veteran singer-songwriters told me "she used to sound like a girl singing in front of the mirror in her bedroom - now she sounds real good ". Chris Knox, another Flying Nun veteran singer- songwriter and not the one I mentioned before, stood before the Magick Heads in Dunedin at Nunfest and asked the woman from Melody Maker how she felt flying right across the world to hear Steeleye Span. In 1978, Mick Dawson would bring his songs to the Enemy practices and Chris Knox would say they sounded like Steeleye Span. What is it with Chris Knox and Steeleye Span?
"So gradually the Magick Heads became a hard-rocking little band with unchanging personnel, they even toured. Released a beautiful album called Before We Go Under that all my friends in America thought was pop perfection but which didn't make the charts or anything. Jane started writing too, good songs, and she stopped dancing so much because she had learned to play guitar. Bob still wrote killer pop songs. Everyone kept saying the Magick Heads have got really good haven't they.
"But hey - they were really good when they STARTED Trevor, they're EXCELLENT now"