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Risky business

Georgia's Magnapop make party music with a difference

by Charles Taylor

On stage, Magnapop -- the Georgia band whose third release, Rubbing Doesn't Help (Priority), is just out -- are a collision waiting to happen. Ruthie Morris, whirling around with her guitar as if she could use it to take flight, and Shannon Mulvaney, his lumbering frame hunched so far over his bass you're sure he's going to topple into the audience, flail away at their instruments on opposite ends of the stage like tent flaps in a hurricane. Plainly in love with the speed and fury of punk-rock guitar, Morris and Mulvaney add weight and mass to create a sound that's, to lift a phrase from a friend, bigger than fucking Texas.

For everything that's up-front about Magnapop's sound, there's a sense of mystery to the band that emanates directly from lyricist and vocalist Linda Hopper. Live, Hopper provides a visual focus amid the blur of her bandmates. Exuding supreme confidence from center stage, she ponies throughout the set, wearing a smile that promises secrets she's not about to reveal. She's an unknown quantity in the midst of chaos, a party girl who's always in control.

Hopper's persona is the perfect fit for the mood of Rubbing Doesn't Help, a collection of mostly flat-out rockers that don't let off steam so much as pull you into wormy states of anxiety. Listening to it is a little like lying on the floor at a party to take a breather and noticing the dust bunnies and used band-aids in the corner only inches from your head. To the oddball earmarks that have characterized the bands who've sprung from Athens, Magnapop add an almost David Lynch-like preoccupation with scars, bruises, burns, all sorts of visible and invisible nicks that tell you you're alive. "Every edge touches me/Every edge makes me bleed," Hopper sings in "Come On Inside" over a jangle of guitars that you gradually become aware of, like a fly buzzing closer and closer to your head.

The matter-of-factness in Hopper's voice, the aural equivalent of the direct look she levels at the camera in photos and videos, embodies the meaning of Rubbing Doesn't Help. As that title (a lift from a Ben-Gay ad) implies, it's an album about how there's sometimes just no escape from pain -- and how there's also nothing worth doing that doesn't risk it. "It's time to change," Hopper sings on the insanely catchy opener, "This Family," to which Morris replies, "Fuck with the pain." By the end of the song, the band have locked onto a killer riff while Hopper repeats "This family is going to heaven/This family is going to hell" over and over again. It's even money, she seems to be saying, where taking a chance will land you, and she sounds exhilarated by the odds.

Magnapop aren't blind to the swagger that's the pitfall of proclaiming you're tough enough to take what comes. On "Hold You Down," the most brutal track here and perhaps the most brutal personal attack rock has produced since "Positively 4th Street," Hopper comes on like an emotional dominatrix. "I could crucify you," she taunts before delivering this cold, merciless, withering reprieve: "I choose not to." She's lording her power here, reminding her subject that the most sadistic demonstration of power can be not exercising it.

But that power sounds like a good front on the heartbreaking "Open the Door." The blunt opening, "Everything is good these days, but all of my friends are dying," is like having someone you love tell you he or she has had some tests and the news isn't good. There's an unsettling ambiguity to the way Hopper sings the title. Open the door to where? A passage to a better world, or just a premature exit from this one? When you untangle the line "Careful stays and careless dies, but careless is and careful tries," you realize Hopper is totting up the cost of carrying on, the difference between how you need to act to stay alive and how you need to act to feel alive.

The album ends on an uncharacteristically elegiac note. The last listed song (there's a hidden 14th cut), "Dead Letter," marks a parting of ways with a friend (perhaps original drummer David McNair, who Hopper has said left Magnapop because of "lifestyle" differences; Mark Posgay is the new drummer), but a parting utterly without nostalgia. "I've lost all sentimental thoughts about you," she sings, and in the background the sound of a simply strummed dobro feels as if it were defining a landscape that stretches out for miles. What links "Dead Letter" to the rockers on the album is that they're all about the exhilaration and terror of freedom so big it could swallow you without a trace, lead you to a place you never expected to end up. Magnapop may make party music. But they know a party's still a party even when a chair goes through the window and you feel as if you were reeling even though you're standing on two feet.

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