John E. Magnan – 50-50

John E. Magnan
(Southport – 2001)
by John Barrett

The mix here is half vocal and half instrumental, half rhythm … and always relentless. There’s a rippling wave of congas, a big-sounding horn section (from one sax and one trumpet!) and the voice of Joanie Pallatto, dripping heat. “You say you’ll never leave me and you’ll always want to see me/ And your words are so untrue.” This is the “Goodbye Mambo”, a most poignant kiss-off. “Sunny Summer Sundae” has a silly lyric but a gorgeous bed of rhythm – Magnan’s bass plays up high, like a guitar, atop a thousand wood blocks. With its slow reggae horns, “Short Lament” makes its tuneful complaint: Magnan sings gently, and the organ wails a little. (It’s not long enough, but it’s great while it lasts.)

The Latin touch works well on John Mellencamp’s “Not Running Anymore”, with Mark Olsen triumphant on trumpet. This is good, but “Janet” is better: a love spoken by distant piano, John’s fragile voice, and acres of bells. When the keys turn aggressive, everything shakes: a storm of percussion, raining on a fast merry-go-round. Thanks to arranger Bob Long, and composer Alejo Poveda. You will certainly want to meet “Janet”.

Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening” is played close to the original, with stronger clave and something of a comedy vocal. (Magnan’s voice is an acquired taste; I think he tries too hard to be funny.) Desperation seeps through “Blake”, with anguished sax and dirty organ. The best of the compositions, the mood is like a ’70s cop show – melodramatic, and arresting. “Trude’s Garden” is a folk tune with gongs; other instruments appear, but they are as transient as the fog. And the final tune drips with late-night loneliness: “But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do/ I’m on the verge, the verge of loving you.” The organ whistles, the trumpet yelps, and the smoke rises. I would say this band is almost there: some of the songwriting is weak but the musicianship is superb. There are some good moments; I bet their next album will have even more.