May 1997 – album reviews – Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’s ‘Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’ (“music for Disney cartoon castles in the sky”)

24 May

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra: 'Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra'

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra: ‘Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’

Do I have to do all the usual obvious journalistic crap about Iceland? Do I? Oh, if I must. They eat puffins, or something. They drink tons of cheap alcohol. It’s bloody cold there. It’s dark all winter, light all summer, or something. Magnus Magnússon. Mad elfin pixie Bjork… blah blah blah. Will this do?

Oh, and I have to act surprised that Iceland can produce such great music, and be really patronising about that in particular. Because we British love looking down on small nations, don’t we?

All that gone through, just because two-thirds of Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra are Icelandic. Ragga sang You Don’t on Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’ album – a track full of filmic strings, soloing flutes and slow shuffling beats -which casts some light on this album. Previously, Ragga and keyboardist Jakob Magnússon were in a successful Icelandic band together; when they ended up in London, Magnússon worked as Icelandic cultural attache while Ragga attended drama school. Later, they formed Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra with English sampling wizard Mark Davies from Voices Of Kwahn. With this debut, they bring all these diverse strands of experience together to produce a magical experience. Huge, colourful swathes of sound; music for Disney cartoon castles in the sky.

So – Fairy Godmother opens on a feather-bed of lapping sea, boat-horns, celeste chimes and toybox orchestra that scream “Disney”, before the trip-hop beats are introduced. But the JMO is always very natural, organic-sounding – no harsh electronica scraping here. And Ragga’s voice is a magical thing – Kate Bush in a lower register, with some of Bjork’s expressive stylings. Like Bjork, her lyrics tell strange stories, but she introduces Shot almost matter-of-factly: “I got shot in the head by a man / who had been aiming at me / for many days… / At the moment I got / the paper from my doorstep.” To an almost easy-listening palette of relaxing hues, jazzy woodwind and flutes, she philosophically concludes that “love can hurt…” Well, it would, wouldn’t it?

Daringly, styles keep shifting, track by track: somehow in keeping with the fairy-tale transformations of the lyrics and samples. Passion For Life has a soulful belted-out chorus (Ragga does brazen Broadway as easily as schmaltzy Hollywood), a slow, loping early-hours atmosphere of spooky keyboards and bone-rattles for beats, and brilliantly lifts an evocative passage from Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio For Strings’ (the music from “Platoon”, if your imagination’s still settled in the cinema after those Disney references). In Where Are They Now? – to surging orchestral strings, keyboard arpeggios and sparse but powerful metallic percussion – Ragga sings a torch-song elegy to the lost children of wars. Even when no lyrics intrude, Ragga’s evocative harmonies over a battalion of drums and stabbing strings are just as emotional.

The mix of folky guitars and flutes, East European violin and pleasantly shuffling beats on Turn It Off remind one of Beth Orton’s marriage of bedsit folk and electronica. Deep Down also has a deceptively simple sound: alternately hushed and passionate vocals over shifting sands of decaying electronics and a barrage of junkshop percussion. It hits a groove and stays there – perfectly. With the fairy-tale assertion that “sometimes I can breathe underwater / Sometimes I can fly around the sky”, Underwater features more Disney-like wonderment: reverberating drones, slippery strings lilting through the melody and expert percussion care of a Steve Jansen/Rain Tree Crow sample fluidly weaving in and around the programmed beats.

Despite its title and distorted electro-beats, Beatbox Controller isn’t some ’90s ode to the DJ/mixer in the manner of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. The “beatbox” referred to is the heart – “you are my beatbox controller / A telepathic mixer of emotion…” Ragga’s vocals are almost helium-light and, musically, the track sounds like twenty-first century reggae-lite. In an extended coda where he duets with Jacob Magnússon’s improvising keyboards, Mark Davies makes beautiful music out of sampled percussion – this man’s going to be a figure to watch in the world of electronica, to rank alongside DJ Shadow or Howie B.

Indeed, Two Kisses is built on a disconcerting, clattering rhythm track of samples of god-knows-what. Buzzes, radio waves, ghostly fluttering flutes and Eastern pipes are all jammed into the mix. Ragga sings a multi-tracked ethereal chorus and her voice is, at one point, treated to sound – well, er – exactly like a Smurf, to be honest. Weird, peculiar – Laurie Anderson jamming with The Art Of Noise produced by Tricky is about the closest comparison. Close, but nowhere near. So, yes, if weirdness to the point of absurdity overtakes them every so often (Man In The Moon overdoes the lyrics on the wrong side of Kate Bush kooky pop, and the overblown melody reminds one of… Christ! The Thompson Twins!) it’s a price worth paying for the trio’s musical vision.

Music for your fairy-tale nightmares. A perfect accompaniment to drifting away while watching “Fantasia” for the hundredth time, safe in the knowledge that the good witch now works her magic with a sampler.

Touched by the wand of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

(review by Vaughan Simons)

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra: ‘Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra’
EMI Records Ltd., CDEMD 1107 (7243 8 56728 2 8)
CD/cassette album
Released: 19th May 1997

Get it from:
(updated 2018) buy original CD second-hand, or get the reissued download from Amazon or iTunes.

Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra online:
Soundcloud Last FM

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