Review of Magnetic North Album by Aqualung

The chances are that although you won't have heard of Aqualung, you'll have heard them, so to speak. Aqualung is essentially the cherubic looking and musical teen prodigy-ish Matt Hales and his gold selling eponymous debut album 'Lung's was released in 2002. Times have been a little harder since then, having found initial success in taking the devil's coin (or more factually advertising agency cash) for the Beetle propping Strange and Beautiful, has continued down the much maligned alternative business model of licensing anything he can to OC-like American soaps, cop shows and even Skins.

Aqualung Magnetic North Album

Many people have an issue with this approach, claiming some kind of artistic high ground whenever a copy of Moby's Play is anywhere near them. I kind of get it if you let your music backdrop the wrong product (stand up The Whip), but I admit that I also cheerfully apply a double standard here, having bored people to tears when Boards of Canada soundtracked a BMW ad a few years back. Anyway, let's let bygones be bygones here. You have to applaud anyone who finds a way to earn a buck from an industry which - unless you happen to be Madonna - is now hardly a career for the avaricious.

Interestingly, my media player defines Aqualung as folk, a movement that's possibly replaced hirsute Americans with cabin fever as the zeitgeist for people bored with MTV's endless diet of synth pop a la mode. I say interesting because those thinking about Noah and The Whale at this moment can forget it. Magnetic North is refreshingly Hurdy-Gurdy and banjo free, there are no nonnies being hey-ed, and no Wicker Men beating on your bedroom wall.

Instead, Matt Hales sixth album is a masterpiece of understatement, percolating some of the best bits of The Eels and Radiohead into songs filled with just enough rawness to bypass any feelings of deja vu. Hales will of course have to go a long way to beat John Grant's Queen of Denmark to the singer-songwriter record of the year, but both are essentially cut from the same FM soft rock cloth, but where Grant confronted to provoke, Magnetic North bides it's time, preferring it's world less bleak.

Hales would appear to be better than many of his contemporaries, opener New Friend taking it's gospel overtones and thumping cantina piano into almost Stevie Wonder territory. It's not alone in its optimism either, the choppy acoustics of Fingertip finds Hales in love territory, whilst the dreamy one hundred and twenty three seconds of California sound suspiciously like they were made for Arnie to use on his next tourist message.

Where Magnetic North scores most heavily however is in the stripped back vulnerability of Remember Us, a sentimental ballad delivered in a most unsentimental way. Although comparisons between Hales and Thom Yorke are inevitable - the wonderful Sundowning could slot seamlessly into The Bends - this is an eloquent testament to both its depth and fragility.

Back in the eighties they had a term for music which was made for audiences who didn't want to put a donk on it - they called this adult orientated rock, and it was universally rubbish. Magnetic North, along with Queen of Denmark, are however records that really justify that tag being applied in an intelligent way. And despite having one of the most god-awful names for a band in the history of bands, Matt Hales may just yet get to the point where someone on the streets of his home town of Southampton actually recognises him. Even if that doesn't materialise, you'll be hearing songs from Magnetic North again, whether you realise it or not.

Andy Peterson


Site -