Despite his incarceration, Phil Spector has in the last few years managed to weave his way into ubiquitous indie-rock relevance. From the subtle Ronettes-isms of Grizzly Bear and the reverb-soaked ballads of Beach House, to the total embrace of girl-group aesthetics by Best Coast and The Pipettes, the nostalgia for post-war America has never been stronger. Magic Kids, a young, wistful quintet who refer to the songs of their previous band, The Barbaras, as "budget Spectorisms," are the next iteration of this wave, though their reverence is skewed more towards Van Dyke Parks, Lou Christie and Brian Wilson. On their debut LP Memphis, the River City-based band strikes a delicate balance between pop's past and present, creating a joyful, sweeping portrait of childhood memory that borrows from the greats without belying their punk rock beginnings. Like Sufjan Stevens or Belle & Sebastian, Magic Kids take instrumental dexterity to the playground, deftly embedding the emotional weight of adulthood into songs that often sound ready-made for a sock hop.
These competing senses, of whimsy and the end of adolescence, define Memphis throughout its 11 songs. Lyrically, it's playful but hardly childish, while the music teems with a deceptively simple finesse, leaving a compositional imprint that far outlasts its mere 29 minutes. Opener "Phone" picks up where Jens Lekman left off on Night Falls Over Kortedala, detailing the rush of an impending call from a summer crush amidst bright strings, woodwinds, keys and jangly guitars. Or is it a lover, and a more complicated adult relationship he's referring to? Singer Bennett Foster makes it hard to tell the difference, which is part of the album's appeal.
On "Candy," we're told of drive-in date nights and Polaroid fun, though there's an ageless desire embedded in the hook: "There's no candy sweeter than my baby" could have been written by Roy Orbison or Tiffany, but Foster's protagonist longs to hear it just the same. On "Summer," the content is no less youthful, though it takes on a measured tone as he laments the introduction of secrecy into a previously carefree relationship. In a sense, Memphis is a musical Mad Men, inhabiting that space where human complexities become far more intriguing when obstructed by the safe sheen — or, in this case, bustling production — of the times.
Broadly, Memphis is a record that pays homage to the legacy of its namesake city. Though it doesn't sound like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Big Star or anything on Stax, the record hints at a longing within the band to extend the buoyancy of that collective personality, to capture the ghosts of these legends and move the conversation forward. Without negating the influence of Jay Reatard and the Goner Records family, iconic Memphians in a more modern sense, it's a collection that attempts to outgrow simple indie classification, revealing an ambition in Magic Kids that could bestow on them Arcade Fire-esque renown if their epic vision continues to expand. Perhaps tellingly, the record was produced by Shane Stoneback, whose star has risen in recent years through his work with Vampire Weekend, who, like Arcade Fire, are one of 13 bands in Billboard history to top the charts with an independently released album in its first week on the shelves. Far from suggesting Magic Kids' motive is fame, the production credits are worth noting to comprehend the scope of their vigor — the nostalgia isn't ironic, it's what compels them toward greatness.