Things seem to be shifting in the Sand Pebbles camp. On their previous four albums the Melbourne quintet’s modus operandi has been to go forth, loudly. Riding the backs of three guitars, the band have made a name for themselves in Australia and internationally by unleashing a series of explorations into mind expansion, without seatbelts or safety spectacles, towards some kind of melting, tangerine coloured sun. It’s a sound that’s seen them held responsible for opening a psychedelic Pandora’s Box of long-forgotten riffs and strange flavours. Or, to put it another way: the Sand Pebbles have been credited with finally taking the acid out of the freezer.
Most of the songs on Dark Magic diligently follow this framework. The shift comes from the inclusion of acoustic guitars, something that their previous albums have been conspicuously devoid of, and guitarist Tor Larsen’s voice being moved from shadows to centre stage. Folk songs sourced from Larsen’s pilgrimage to Scotland, particularly ?Long, Long Ago? and ?One of these Mornings?, add a new dimension and depth to the band’s sound, albeit a quiet one. It’s the simplicity and brevity of these songs, and the closing track ?Blue Eyes in Black & White?, that take the album to new heights, not the cranking ones. It seems the Sand Pebbles are climbing out of the psychedelic-rock shaped box they’ve called home for over 10 years and – while certain fans may scoff – it’s a nice and necessary change.
While it’s a divergence with beautiful results, the band does not linger around the maypole too long. Most tracks on this album – from the opener ?Spring Time [Who Hasn’t Lost their Head?]? to the boisterous ?River Sparkle? and title track ?Dark Magic? – are classic Pebbles full of the ?celestial? droppings and ?cosmic? dippiness the band delight in promoting. Yet for all their promises of brave new worlds, and the contributions of Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500), Britta Phillips (Luna), Tim Holmes (Death In Vegas), Will Carruthers (Spacemen 3, Spiritualized) and Malcolm McDowell, there’s not a lot here that’s actually weird. If there is such a thing as MOR psychedelica, Dark Magic teeters dangerously close to it.
That said, it’s a solid album from a much-loved, self-assured band but every way I’ve listened to it (at my desk, on headphones, lying on the beach, bicycle riding, car stereo on a spring afternoon with a flower tucked over my ear, coffee and cigarette at sunrise) I’m left wanting more and, although seven of the ten songs are over four minutes long, the album feels short; not necessarily in length but in impact. While expectations are usually a one-way ticket to disappointment, I can’t help but wish the Sand Pebbles raise their freak flag a little higher and reset their dials towards that grinning, pink gremlin that used to be known as a sun. Yet, without expectation I shall wait for thee, in a velvet robe, clutching a garland of wilting roses, lulled by the beauty of their acoustic guitars for album number six.