The folkish side of indie rock has been blessed with several female songwriters who have unique, affecting voices Chan Marshall, Joanna Newsom, Becky Stark but White Magic's Mira Billotte is in a different league altogether. Her vocal tracks thunder and shiver all over the register, fearlessly chasing down radical intonations and bold tonal colors. Where the others can all sound a little fey and princessy, Billotte's full-spectrum blasts hark back to the possessed passion of '60s stunners like Grace Slick, Karen Dalton, and why not? Janis Joplin.
Billotte's voice hinges on form and freedom, a balance that's been remarkably well preserved on White Magic's recordings. Speaking from her New York home about the band's new EP, Dark Stars (Drag City), Billotte notes, "It's the first digital recording White Magic recording has done, and we figured that would be cool because we could record in a spontaneous way."
But while the music feels fresh and explorative, it's clear from my conversation with Billotte that a lot of thought goes into White Magic's release schedule, a not-insignificant point given indie rock's de facto buzz-bin setting. To be sure, the hype machine is familiar to the duo: Billotte's regular partner is Doug Shaw, though they're frequently joined by other musicians like Gang Gang Dance's Tim Dewitt and the Dirty Three's Jim White. Back in 2004, White Magic were frequently cited as leading lights of the burgeoning freak folk movement and were invited by Sonic Youth and Stephen Malkmus to play the hip All Tomorrow's Parties festival in London.
Perhaps it was Billotte's previous experience with Quix*o*tic a band she played in with her sister Christine that kept White Magic so even-keeled through these early waves. White Magic released an EP (2004's Through the Sun Door), then took their time with an expansive full-length, Dat Rosa Mel Apibus (both Drag City). Since putting out the album, they've mostly shied away from touring. If anything, the band continues to be underrated, especially Billotte's obvious star-power talent. One wonders if it isn't the liberties she takes with her tracks the very things that make them so special that's kept mainstream acceptance at bay. Vocalists such as Marshall and Stark may lack Billotte's range, but their voices are more consistent and pleasant and therefore more likely to nab attention through in iTunes downloads or soundtrack one-offs.
Far from being a stopgap, Dark Stars sounds like a further staking out of White Magic's idiosyncratic musical terrain: piano-driven ballads that swallow up a field guide's worth of sounds and textures, everything from Tin Pan Alley jazz to dub chants, West African guitar music to Old Weird America folk. Bookends "Shine on Heaven" and "Winds" spiral out with repetitive, glistening chants Billotte tells me the first song began as an improvisation at a party with friends while "Very Late" boasts baroque blues and "Poor Harold" a loose-limbed folk balladreggae stomp combination. If this all sounds a little unwieldy, that's because it is. The EP format is a perfect fit for the duo, since it allows them a full range of exploration in individual songs while still maintaining a succinct arc. Billotte confirms my suspicion that Dat Rosa was composed of four distinct parts, or EPs: "It's a good format for my songs ... and I tend to segment things in fours ... so I like that the EP is four songs."
Besides Billotte's voice, White Magic's intensity has a lot to do with how they draw so many splintering sounds out of a relatively limited musical palate of mostly piano, guitar, and White's seasick drums. Their songs sometimes seem to be all incantation, yawping calls without resolution.