The common magpie – or the pica pica, to give its more flamboyant and distinguished Latin name – is widely believed to be not only one of the most intelligent of birds, but among the most intelligent of all animals. One of the few species able to recognize itself in a mirror, it is a brazen scrounger and a cunning pillager. It skulks and scavenges, looting and swooping to steal any gleaming, unfamiliar object which piques its interest. In other words, it’s easy to dismiss the skill and intricacy of what initially appears to be merely an ordinary garden bird.
Unfortunately, Dublin four-piece The Magpies have not inherited the complexities and ingenuity of their feathered namesakes. Released at the end of last month, there is nothing of the curious or the mysterious about their debut album, ‘The WoodY House’. Bland, predictable and insipidly formulaic, it somehow manages to sound like nothing and everything you’ve ever heard at once, leaving no imprint of any discernible identity.
Where a magpie would consistently collect new, alluring oddities and trinkets, the band seem to have unearthed a few trustworthy influences (they name Supergrass and the Pixies, for instance) and stuck rigidly by them. Songs like the opening number Black Sun, The Crush and Summer Day rely too heavily on the straight and standard guitars-bass-drums blueprint beloved of so many bands, falling back too often on humming, growling and boozy bawling as a means of creating impact. Some, like Burning Rain or Genes, are more rooted on the acoustic side of the spectrum, but that doesn’t mean they stand out any stronger. In fact, if they do stand out, it’s down to their frequently awkward lyrics, with Genes‘ “pleased to meet you, I’m your father/I’ll buy you beer/Please don’t bother” providing a prime example.
The main problem is that, with no real hooks or charms to grab your attention and, more importantly, hold on to it, the tracks meld into one characterless sound that leaves no room for excitement or intrigue. Even the downbeat, lonely numbers, like Blue Coral and the instrumental Leaving, turn to musical cliché, as if it’s only possible for bands to convey their intensity or unleash their deepest emotions over feedback, reverb and sliding guitars. A few moments of potential escape from the overused formulas do arise in the piano-led, vaudevillian Ballad of the Crying Clown and the more enigmatic story and slightly unsettling stylings of The Woody House, but they’re just not strong enough to save proceedings.
There’s nothing wrong with a band choosing guitars, bass, drums and occasional piano as their instruments of choice, or admiring a set of well-loved influences; it’s knowing how to use all that to create something different and engaging, maybe even something which could render that band an influence to others itself, that’s the important – and, admittedly, difficult – part. Sadly, with ‘The WoodY House’, The Magpies have failed to do that, instead producing a frustratingly forgettable record. They need to look to their winged friends, and learn to loot the vaults of music history for more ideas and curiosities, more personality and individuality, if they want their music to take flight.