Graded on a Curve: Magnapop,
The Circle Is Round

Atlanta, GA’s Magnapop emerged as part of the 1990s scene, but unlike many of their contemporaries their sound isn’t boxed in by the decade. It’s probably a stretch to describe them as timeless, but the band’s blend of catchiness and raw guitar lands between the poles of power-pop and pop-punk, which is to say that theirs is a classic sorta thing. On new album The Circle Is Round, vocalist Linda Hopper, guitarist-vocalist Ruthie Morris, bassist Shannon Mulvaney, and drummer David McNair have made no radical adjustments to their approach while avoiding the formulaic. For anyone who dug ‘em before, the smart money says they’ll dig ‘em now. It’s out September 27 through Happy Happy Birthday To Me.

This is Magnapop’s sixth album and first since Chase Park came out ten years back. The band’s first three, which commenced with a self-titled debut for Caroline in 1992 followed by Hot Boxing and Rubbing Doesn’t Help, both for Priority in the US (Play It Again Sam in Europe) in ’94 and ’96 respectively, were easy to take for granted in an era flush with bands. Well, that was the case with me, at least.

While the four-piece (the “classic” lineup is back together for this latest effort) can reliably pull off sturdy, non-hackneyed power pop moves, the forcefulness of their attack ultimately lands them in the ballpark of pop-punk, and bluntly, that zone has been absolutely polluted with riff-debasing dullards and overly anthemic buffoons for a few decades.

But Magnapop easily avoid pop-punk’s general dearth of quality, partly because their simplicity is counterbalanced with songwriting acumen. That is to say, they actually write tunes rather than just cop and reassemble moves. Not that grabbing from precedent is a faux pas, it’s just that when Hopper and Morris do it, as in the mid-tempo Ramonesian chug of The Circle Is Round’s opener “Dog on the Door,” it’s done with good taste, with the revved up choruses insuring it’s far from a carbon copy.

Just as importantly, the band connect with enthusiasm across this album rather than leaving the impression of gone through motions in the hopes of procuring some middle-age spending loot. As a certified middle-ager, I appreciate that, and we’ll come back to this subject a little further down below. To return to songwriting, “Chane Your Hair” ups the melodicism, though it’s nearer to gal-fronted indie pop than power pop, though Morris’ guitar thrust has the stuff to please fans of old-school pop-rock.

That is, Magnapop has a ’60s root which, via some judiciously applied keyboard, bursts up out of the sidewalk during “A Simple Plan” as they don’t forsake their overall Indie-Alt sound. That’s called cohesion, folks. But “Super Size Me” is a ripsnorter, at least instrumentally, validating friend and former producer Michael Stipe’s observation that Magnapop are like Young Marble Giants backed by AC/DC.

I made the instrumental distinction above, because Hopper maintains an appealing indie pop composure throughout; suffice it to say that if you are new to Magnapop and dig The Primitives and/ or Heavenly, step right up. But the group fruitfully expand upon this mode, as in the Farfisa-tinged pop-grinder “Need to Change” and then the sleek rocker “What Can I Do,” which combines the best of Kim Deal and Joan Jett.

In a nutshell, The Circle is Round is a start-to-finish winner enhanced by the almost Paisley Underground vibe of “Rain Rain.” And this observation isn’t as much of a stretch as some might think, as Magnapop are neighbors to a scene (that would be Athens) that at a few points kinda suggested Paisley Underground East. However, “Disabled” hits a mix of toughness and melody that’s distinctly ’90s, and that it widely sidesteps any of the decade’s negative connotations is a pretty major deal.

“Rip the Wreck” reconnects with the vaguely Ramones-like template, which is a neat bit of sequencing as it’s the last of the record’s tracks recorded in 2018. And through some smartly executed vocal interplay and structural developments that begin to suggest Mission of Burma as a possible influence, the tune blossoms into Magnapop’s own thing.

“Leo,” the first of two concluding ’92 demos isn’t a Coltrane cover but instead really leans in to that Ramones sound but in a way that reminds me of Bratmobile covering The Misfits, and with a mid-song slowdown that accentuates the punk in the band’s equation, though not as much as the fleetly raging finale “Pretty Awful.”

To swing back to the earlier thoughts on inspiration, that Magnapop can cap their latest record with the energetic spark of those demos minus any anxiety over the new stuff sounding inadequate in comparison illuminates a refreshing self-awareness that their fresh songs are truly worth a damn. In fact, The Circle is Round is worth a whole lot more than that.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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