I don’t go to live music gigs. I’m a huge fan of well produced, polished music, presented in a crisp package, that I can enjoy in my own time and space. I have, however, been to one live gig. One artist I cared enough to see live and to meet.
This is a difficult review for me to write because the album is a very dear one to me, but my review of the gig was not taken well by the artist. While I don’t think I was unfair or inaccurate, I do regret the effect it had. If you know where to look, you can find that original review, but I am going to try to forget that history (and not draw it out again here) to do this review justice.
Magnetic is Miriam Clancy’s second album, released three years after her debut album, Lucky One. The two albums could not be much more different and yet both are unmistakably Miriam. Magnetic marked a new phase for Miriam, as she transitioned out of what she herself called “GarageBand-ville.” With an accomplished producer, Miriam has taken her fantastic range and applied it to a variety of styles with layers of panache and polish.
The Best is the first track on Magnetic. Proverbially, one is supposed to save the best to last, but is it the best track on the album? I’d say it’s a handy second place. Straight away the listener is introduced to the careful layering of instruments that is a strong feature of many tracks on this album. The song begins with what I feel as a restrained energy. From the first bar there is something pent up and, sure enough, it is eventually let loose in a classic Clancy crescendo. Miriam likes “light and shade” in a song and this one delivers that contrast in spades.
This track is one of a handful in my entire music collection that invokes chills down my spine, as Miriam hits that crescendo with a powerful delivery that she is so, so good at.
When I Do switches styles to a plucky pop number and was released as a single. While the energy doesn’t reach the levels of The Best, the tempo starts and remains high and the tone almost frivolous. Miriam’s vocals are almost… cheeky. Like all good singles, the chorus is catchy and leaps out of the surrounding verses. Miriam once again manages a diverse vocal delivery to fit the phase of the song, including her, perhaps trademark, breathy style.
If you thought there would be a distinct style to this album, you’d be disavowed of that notion by the time Join the Chorus begins, as yet another vibe is invoked.
It would be wrong to call this an acoustic track but I believe it would translate well to a simple vocal and guitar. A strong illustration of the layering approach, this track builds from a few plucky instruments to a rich tapestry of many more traditional ‘mainstream’ sounds, while the melody evokes a church singalong.
You Ain't the Worst Mistake I Made is another plucky number not unlike the early part of Join the Chorus but with a much evener delivery and some definite sass, as you might expect from the title. This track is, I think, one of the best showcases for Miriam’s voice, as she walks those vocals all over the map, bringing each line, each phrase, the tone it deserves.
Southern Cross is the song that, for me, beats out The Best for the actual accolade of the best song on the album. Perhaps you have to be a Kiwi (the person, not the bird^) to capture the full feeling of this song. I asked Miriam if she was away and homesick when it was written. In fact, she was at home and contemplating her move to New York. That fact makes the longing lyrics and sad timbre seem all the more poignant. I also asked if she had offered it to Air New Zealand as an anthem. Apparently, I was not the first to ask. I still think it’s perfect for them.
If I had to pick a single word to describe this song, it would be “stirring.” It makes me proud to be a Kiwi… and proud that someone as talented as Miriam is a Kiwi, too.
The liner track listing for Only Lonely One includes the words “For Dad.” I asked Miriam about this and all she said was that she included it so he would know it is about him (she didn’t think he realised at the time) and so that everyone else wouldn’t think it was “just another break-up song.”
This is a very personal story set to a simple guitar, though with some atmospheric backing and a noticeable echo on the vocals. There is probably no better example of the singer-songwriter art on this album. Although I make it sound simple, Miriam’s delivery and a catchy vocal melody make it very enjoyable.
Real Love brings back the higher tempo and layering in abundance. This is another song that makes use of vocal echo to good effect. Although it has an interesting arrangement, the structure of the track is quite straightforward with just a little escalation toward the end. Just not in the same magnitude of The Best.
The premise of Mixtape is cute, but not cutesy. Another simple arrangement, it explores various aspects of the love that goes into things you make for a loved one — that the love that goes into it should outweigh any less than perfect execution. Mixtapes, pictures, and poems that come from the heart are beautiful for what they mean, not what they are. This is, perhaps, the track that sits closest to the style of the previous album, Lucky One.
The title track of the album, Magnetic, is a great piece of pop art. While starting like a typical Clancy track, with those gorgeous and largely unchallenged vocals, the break after the second verse leads to a change in tone and that other Clancy classic tool — the escalation of energy (and noise levels). Magnetic, however, does not have a crescendo, instead holding the energy before an uncharacteristic fade-out.
If you’ve ever wondered about life in a semi-rural New Zealand town at a time when cities were starting to take the shine off the country lifestyle, then be sure to listen to Ghost Town, for it is about Miriam’s hometown. Home to Foxton Fries and (originally) Foxton Fizz, these days it is more known as a marker on one’s journey north from Wellington. Indeed, for those who like a good drive, the “Foxton straights” may eclipse them all.
If I have painted an unflattering picture of Foxton, Miriam isn’t going to up the ante. A simple song, Ghost Town has an energy level to match the subject, playing out like a story, in fact a documentary, set to music more than an epic song. As if some memory test, be sure to note how many boyfriends were had!
Another track to receive the full production treatment is Baby Blues, a song about Clancy’s son. The song tells of how having a son changed her life. Part introspective, part love story, this low tempo song is another that would translate well to acoustic despite a plethora of sounds being added in this version.
Another song that harks back, somewhat, to the style of Lucky One, The Knife has some of the most alluring, and interesting, vocals backed with minimal instruments.
Once again, Miriam returns to a familiar formula with My Heart is a Traitor. Beginning with a quiet vocal over a simple piano line, the track slowly builds. Drums are added in the third verse, along with a bass, before the tempo picks up a little another couple of verses in and the vocals gain some extra punch. Before long, the vocals strain against the crescendo of instruments before both fade to an acoustic finish. Classic Miriam.
As an album, Magnetic is in many respects a clear progression from Lucky One, but there are a handful of standout tracks that really deserve attention: The Best, Magnetic, and When I Do should be elevated as important markers in Miriam's career. Southern Cross... well... deserves a place alongside Hello Sailor's Gutter Black as a New Zealand anthem.
^ For Americans reading this, “Kiwi” is properly attributed to either a New Zealander, or the flightless bird of the ratite family. It is not correctly applied to a fruit, which is trademarked as “Kiwifruit.”