The Key Studio Sessions: Cuddle Magic

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It’s hard to believe that Cuddle Magic has been a band for a decade at this point.

The Brooklyn / Philly crew is a conglomeration of artists from along the northeastern seaboard, over the years featuring members from Boston to DC. The band first got on our radar during West Philly’s heady Danger Danger Gallery days with its second record, Picture. It was one of the first artists I ever wrote about for The Key, actually, and at the time I called its music “a striking balance between earthy and ethereal.” I’d say that description still holds up.

But in those early days, I overlooked some elements that came to the forefront on subsequent releases. For example — the band’s acoustic arrangements led me to peg it as having “Americana” leanings, and that’s a term I would probably never use in reference to Cuddle Magic anymore. Especially in light of their brilliantly weird 2012 outing Info Nympho and especially moreso after hearing their solid new record Ashes / Axis, out this Friday on Northern Spy Records.

The album is global in scope — something I say in part because co-songwriter Benjamin Lazar Davis wrote the lead single “Slow Rider” in Ghana, and its bold synthesizer tones and rhythmically intricate tempos not only echo the immersive feeling of African pop, they give the song a left-of-center brilliance not typically heard in western psych-rock outside Dirty Projectors. But moreso than geographical origins, Cuddle Magic’s beyond-boundaries approach is what leads me to that “global” distinction. When it played “Trojan Horse” live for this week’s Key Studio Session, I was drawn to its layers of ominous polyrhythms met with glorious three-part vocal harmonies and a ghostly glitchy electronic undercurrent; its pushes the experimental envelope but is also unexpectedly catchy.

The band — Davis joined by Alec Spiegelman on clarinet, Kristin Slipp and Christopher McDonald on keyboards and vocals, Cole Kamen-Green on trumpet and programming, David Flaherty on drums — dabbles in modern classical and jazz vibes on “Handwrit,” a throwback to Info Nympho, and positively shines on the two-part suite “The First Hippie On the Moon,” which you can watch below via VuHaus.

The amount of territory covered in this song’s eight minutes is remarkable — a serene theatrical opening gives way to a hefty krautrock middle section, exploding in a free jazz freakout worthy of Sun Ra. When the dust settles, the band picks up with Slipp’s soaring soprano vocals and a slow-but-gripping denouement recalling Bjork as readily as Regina Spektor. But as much as the song has going on, and as much potential as there is for inaccessibility at any corner, it sticks with you; indeed, various themes and melodies from “Hippie” have been circling my head since Cuddle Magic recorded at WXPN studios earlier this week. That’s something.

The band is currently on tour with Phox, and performs at World Cafe Live on Thursday night; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar. Below, listen to Cuddle Magic’s Key Studio Session, and order Ashes / Axis here, via Northern Spy records.

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Support for The Key Studio Sessions, from Dogfish Head
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