It would be easy to accuse Cuddle Magic of being Luddites if only they weren’t making music about a hundred times more interesting than all the panda cubs huddling in basements with SP-404s. I mean, samplers hell, these folks don’t even use electric guitars. The thing is, while there is much fascinating and beautiful music to be made with samplers, for many people who adopt the instrument carelessly it becomes a crutch. When each button you press creates not just a note (with variations in attack, volume, etc.) but an entire complete sound, it’s far easier to fill the aural space without much intention or thought. I think this is why it can actually take more skill to make great music on samplers: there are so many easy outs. When one loop sounds great, you have to actively disrupt it to create something new, whereas with acoustic instruments you have to literally play a repeated section every time. This may seem like splitting hairs but it makes a difference. It’s the same kind of difference illustrated by the fact that it’s easy to make deafening noise on an electric guitar and have the same absent expression on your face as someone adjusting the thermostat or reading page 712 of Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, while making the same kind of noise on, say, the saxophone requires you to sweat torrentially and turn sunset red and stumble around like you’re on whippets for the next 5 minutes.
There is also the seemingly unavoidable issue that samplers put a choke collar on rhythm, restrict (and basically kill) harmony, and, in doing the latter, tie down melody as well. Person Pitch is a fantastic record partly because it transcends those restrictions, uses them as rungs on a ladder to something beautiful, but inherent to sampler-pop is monotony in everything but texture. To superimpose loops over one another, they music be harmonically simple (read: one chord, probably a triad) and rhythmically simple (all the same time signature [read:4/4]) to avoid clashes. When the song is a pyramid of loops built on one chord, the harmony never changes (see the entirety of Person Pitch), which means the melody (if the chord is, as suggested, a major or minor triad) is restricted to one diatonic scale. I mean most pop melodies are diatonic anyway, but interest is often spiked by inserting non-diatonic harmony underneath. And look at bands like Grizzly Bear or the Dirty Projectors. That shit is all about shifting rhythm and meter, bizarre harmony and non-diatonic melody.
Cuddle Magic is just about the opposite of this, featuring twelve members, scattered all around Brooklyn and Philadelphia, most if not all of whom hold some sort of collegiate music degree and are masters of their instruments. What makes them great is not that they don’t use samplers or amplification, it’s that it would never occur to you while listening that there was anything missing. Every song is woven gorgeously together out of so many distinct sounds (all actual instruments played by actual human beings, if you’re into that kind of thing) that the color palette, rather than being limited by the aversion to electrics and electronics, actually sounds significantly more varied and expansive than anything I’ve heard in quite a while. It’s like the aural equivalent of the animation from Waking Life. The backbone of song is strong and clear, but the instruments filling it out are constantly shifting not only in terms of presence but in terms of timbre (ooh, music criticism word). Check out, for example, the banjo pattern that enters sneakily after the last chorus of A-side “The Packaging”, playing a hypnotic riff that actually does not line up with the rest of the band, intentionally creating a feeling that is both airy and tense. The arrangements here are impeccable, so perfect in their subtlety that it will take you minimum ten listens before you realize how brilliant they are.
These folks may avoid amplification but they embrace and understand experimentation. Clipped and percussive prepared piano is all over B-side “Paris/Happydent”, strings lushly pad out the periphery of “The Packaging”, bass clarinet thickens and cools the warm upright bass sound or adds reedy weight to breathy vocals, vibraphone adds muted bell-tones to the vocal sections of “Paris/Happydent”, contrapuntal vocals abound in both tunes, and meters are in constant flux. In fact, one of the most ravishing moments in the whole digital single is the first chorus to “The Packaging” in which the meter finally resolves into an even 6/8 and the male/female vocals are split into a round and set apart in achingly pretty yet elusive harmony. It’s a resolution of sorts, but Cuddle Magic always holds a little something back to keep you leaning forward.
Check out the start of “Paris/Happydent” (okay, yes, I know there are a few electronic elements here. Look, just shut up, I wanted to rant about samplers) where a jerky, atonal prepared piano riff is perfectly synced with punchy, crisp drums to build tension in a subtle and delicious way (that will also bob your head) until it finally breaks into the beautiful, dreamy, string-led 6/8 section. Music often sounds the most beautiful when you can’t immediately recognize what is going on, and Cuddle Magic thrives on that. This is pop music, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something elusive about all of it that just makes you want to put it on repeat, and when you do that and close your eyes, you feel like you are drifting into some other world. When the simple, pretty vocals finally kick in halfway through the track, after some vibraphone clusters and muted trumpet howls and string diads that combine to sound almost like a keyboard, they have a power that comes from the prior three minutes of searching. Purely experimental music gives you only the journey, experimental pop gives you both journey and destination.
The vocals on each track (incidentally, both songs are lifted from the band’s upcoming album Picture) are simple and pretty in an almost affectless way that recalls Sufjan Stevens (as does the epic swarm of acoustic instruments), but where in Sufjan’s music the endless repetition of harmony and rhythm (and even melody) gets tiring, “Cuddle Magic” is restless and shifting, and this keeps the music from ever becoming cloying or saccharine. There is in fact, despite the cutesy name, a pervasive, windy melancholy to their music that is crucial to its appeal. This is not disturbed (and is probably even enhanced) by the fact that the lyrics are almost entirely opaque.
As I said at the start, it would be easy to write Cuddle Magic off as reactionaries in an age of exciting new technology. Easy, that is, until you listen to their music and discover how beautiful and forward thinking and rich it all is. Movements in independent pop music come and go with alarming speed these days, but thankfully for all of us, people like Cuddle Magic are following their noses into some of the best and most unconventional pop songs we will ever have the privilege of downloading.