Chicago’s Magical Beasts are a folk group to be reckoned with; a project with so much heart that it bleeds out, that it infiltrates the listener. The band, which is led by Nathan Paulus, is made up of members who work in Chicago. When they get together to create, their productivity rockets — resulting in work that is thoughtful and glimmering. This is how, in a one week recording session at the Pikas home in Door County Wisconsin, they managed to form both an album and an EP.
Here’s what you have to look forward to when both are released on May 1st, 2018:
Peninsula does not wait to reveal its theme. On the Spring-tinted opener “King of the Undead”, the balance between atmosphere and lyrical tone is struck and the theme is revealed: the desire to grow as a person, even in the wake of setbacks and character flaws. The journey begins.
Lyricism is at the heart of each Magical Beasts song, and sometimes takes precedence over melody — a choice that evokes the roots of folk music. A notable example is “My Own Way Down” with its political edge. When the group curves towards contemporary folk, it becomes more melodious, as on the horn-lifted “Glory Be” — but Magical Beasts never lose their passion for story.
All of the elements on these records were recorded live save for the horns. This choice creates the sense of community within the harmonies that build as the music grows. The interplay between harmonica and the chorus of voices on “Clara June” would not be so powerful if recorded separately. But it is the separately recorded horns that shine on Peninsula, often creating climactic moments or underscoring mood. The majestic burst on “Learning and Forgetting” makes it an album highlight — an addictive build and release.
The tracks on Peninsula often rise as they progress, which evokes ideas of growth, of overcoming fears and anxieties, of evolving. As a concept, Peninsula is a successful collection of tracks that sparkle with emotion and desire.
The theme of When Love’s a Stranger is, as you might expect, the struggles of love. This is a collection of love songs that — while less conceptual than Peninsula — are an artful formation of moods. Here, the strength comes in a playfulness with rhythm, such as on “When Love’s a Stranger”, which comes to life with the plucking of a banjo. The simplicity in the lyrics and bouncy tone of “Lady Bird” feels refreshing among heavier tracks.
There are moments on When Love’s a Stranger that sparkle. The strings that punctuate “Someone to Lift the Blue” as the pace increases strike right in the heart and create a depth of sound around the expert lyricism. The final moments of “Erin and the Storm” are the strongest on the EP, with harmonies that soar and rise above the stormy and almost ominous tone of the track.
When Love’s a Stranger is unified by content and showcases the multiple directions that Magical Beasts can move in while still crafting elegant folk music.