The recorded output of this Atlanta popcore foursome gives truth to the old saw that great live bands often make mediocre records. On stage, Magnapop is electric and alive with garage-rock simplicity, punk dynamics and classic new wave songwriting, sealed by Linda Hopper’s molasses-sweet trill and, most important, the action-packed axe antics of genuine guitar heroine Ruthie Morris. But on record…
The Sugarland EP consists of early demos; those five songs, along with six later ones, make up Magnapop’s eponymous debut. Of the tunes produced by the band, the best are the driving “Garden” and a feedback’n’power chord role reversal of Big Star’s “13.” (“Ear” has lyrics by Duplex Planet poet Ernest Noyes Brookings). The record’s other high points were recorded with Michael Stipe. (Hopper and drummer David McNair were in the early-’80s Athens primitive pop combo Oh-OK, which also included Matthew Sweet and Stipe sibling Lynda.) The dizzying “Merry” and the jangly, skanky “Favorite Writer” overcome Stipe’s slight production values by virtue of their incandescent hooks. Magnapop suggests the possibility of great pop things to come.
Ted Niceley produced Magnapop’s first serious studio effort, Kiss My Mouth, striking the right balance of slick and spontaneous on the four exceedingly perky songs, especially “Texas” and the lissome “Lay It Down.” But Bob Mould’s production of Hot Boxing doesn’t sound all that different from their demos. The performances and songwriting are clearly more confident, but the studio accentuates the band’s — especially Morris’ — hardcore punk swagger, neglecting to add the pop sparkle their best stuff demands. Rerecorded versions of “Texas,” “Lay It Down” and Magnapop’s “Skinburns” pale compared to the original models; though “Idiot Song” and “Here It Comes” are energetic, the record never quite hits the heights suggested by their more primitive material. With the charm (and crutch) of lo-fi ingenuousness gone, Hot Boxing reduces Magnapop to generic, if good, ’90s girlpunk.
The four new songs of Fire All Your Guns at Once, produced by California punk veteran Geza X, bring Magnapop to a surprisingly modern point, like a punchy early-’80s new wave band given an enticing and subtle update. The real problem is the dichotomy between the music’s genial aggression and the lyrics’ vehemence: singing “You can’t fuck with me” (in “Voice Without a Sound”) as if it were a moon/June refrain leaves a strange aftertaste, as does the restrained arrangement of the angry “Down on Me.”