Review by Heather Phares
Knowledge of Mira Billotte and Miggy Littleton's past and present work with Quix*o*tic, Ida, and Blood in the Wall offers little preparation for their work as two-thirds of White Magic. Their debut EP, Through the Sun Door, trades in the same kind of vaguely haunted folk-rock as their Drag City labelmates Faun Fables and Joanna Newsom, although White Magic is more diverse and immediate, and less precious, than either of those artists. Billotte's rich alto is even more striking in this setting than it was in Quix*o*tic, drawing comparisons ranging from Karen Dalton to Grace Slick to Beth Orton. There are also some similarities, both vocally and musically, to Cat Power (particularly on the shuffling "Don't Need") and Mary Timony's post-Helium work (especially on "One Note"), but White Magic avoids the Renaissance faire feel that often characterizes Timony's music. Billotte certainly knows how to use her dusky, husky, strikingly womanly voice: one of her favorite tricks is to switch abruptly from the lower register of her voice to the upper one, injecting more drama into tracks such as the aforementioned "One Note" and "The Gypsies Came Marching After." It's a commanding voice, particularly on White Magic's cover of "Plain Gold Ring," which holds its own against the versions by Nina Simone and Nick Cave. The group's original songwriting is also fairly commanding: "Keeping the Wolves from the Door" has a strangely timeless feel, while "The Apocalypse" delves into eerie rock, relating how easily the end of the world could come about and how "we all have a little heaven in ourselves." Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the simplicity of the band's guitar-piano-bass-drums arrangements, Through the Sun Door spans many moods, making it a strong debut from one of the better indie folk acts out there.
Through the Sun Door EP
[Drag City; 2004]
The cover of White Magic's debut EP, Through the Sun Door, sports a carefully arranged collage of graying occult kitsch: skulls of various sizes and colors, a yellowing palmistry chart, dice, feathers, a pentagram, a Celtic cross, a peace button, glass-encased roses, pictures of eyeballs, a Buddha, a stuffed black cat wearing a gold chain. Obviously fine-tuned to reflect White Magic's bizarre goth-folk aesthetic, the assemblage flits endlessly between the personal and the peculiar: part-head shop, part-attic trunk, part-seasonal Halloween store buried in the back of the suburban mall.
It's an impressive display-- weird and comforting at the same time-- and as a visual representation of the band's music, it succeeds remarkably. White Magic's rambling freak-folk is somehow perfectly reflected in each petrified rose petal, waxy skull, and scorpion-set-in-amber: a quirky, vaguely intriguing mix of Delta Americana and Euro-gypsy, tossed together with care.
Despite only having only six songs (and clocking in at 22 minutes), Through the Sun Door can seem inconsistent and half-cooked. Still, the EP manages to show plenty of promise: There's a moment on the otherwise benign "Keeping the Wolves from the Door" during which vocalist Mira Billotte's voice seems to reach its outer limits, tottering for a few glorious seconds on the edge of total dissolution. Mostly, Billotte howls like a dreamier Eleanor Friedberger, forsaking The Fiery Furnaces' gruff, trilling proclamations for blissed-out bits of campfire verse. But the potential for apocalyptic breakdown remains at a continual high for White Magic, and when Billotte's throaty strains become heavy with that danger, the exhilaration she emits is both palpable and oddly inviting.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, White Magic occasionally meander a bit too close to the knight-guarded edges of their local Medieval Times fairgrounds: The band tends to blindly embrace the same kind of awkward, barefoot spirituality that goes hand-in-hand with gnawing on giant chicken legs and wearing three layers of princess robes (see "Plain Gold Ring", especially). While not totally unconvincing, the band's gentle strummers tend to be far less engaging than their richer, slightly-less-directed romps. The record's two strongest tracks, "One Note" and "The Gypsies Came Marching After" are both centered on bizarre (and entirely out-of-tune) piano melodies, with guitar clangs, thick percussion, and Billotte's unhinged warbling running in a bunch of weird, paranoid circles. It's a dizzying turn, but ultimately worth its weight in stubbed toes.
-Amanda Petrusich, September 08, 2004