Personnel: Linley Hamilton (trumpet); Phil Duffy (drums).
Even longtime partnerships aren't always set in stone. Lifelong friends Daniel Todd and James Smith used to make music as Cashier No. 9; their lone album under that name, To the Death of Fun, was produced by David Holmes and earned the Best Album accolade at the 2011 NI Music Awards. Despite the prominent collaborators and acclaim, the pair felt restless and reinvented themselves as exmagician, and Scan the Blue shows why the name change was justified -- and maybe even necessary. This persona allows them to be bigger, louder, more eclectic, and more anthemic than Cashier No. 9's polished Laurel Canyon stylings: the album's opening track, "Kiss That Wealth Goodbye," embodies the duo's newfound swagger, with toothy synths and low-slung riffs adding some appealing grit and trumpet lending a dash of unexpected elegance. Even songs that could have appeared on a second Cashier No. 9 album, like the fittingly breezy "Bend with the Wind," are more present and playful than they might have been before. Smith and Todd revel in juxtaposing their heaviest grooves and airiest moods, but the contrast between the Canned Heat-meets-T. Rex rumble of "Wild Eyes" and the celestially lovely title track never feels jarring thanks to the album's detailed production and arrangements. Exmagician co-produced Scan the Blue with Rocky O'Reilly, proving that Holmes wasn't solely responsible for Cashier No. 9's atmospheric sound, although the band purchased the Korg MS-20 that wends through "Smile to the Gallery" and "Desperado" after borrowing one from their former collaborator. Scan the Blue's sunny, laid-back strut sounds even more distinctive when compared to the hodgepodge of synth pop, shoegaze, and R&B dominating 2010s indie. If anything, exmagician feels like a throwback to the early 2000s -- it's easy to hear the casual experimentalism of acts like Super Furry Animals, the Beta Band, and Beck in songs like "Place Your Bets." The duo's best songs are as attention-getting as their sound, whether it's the widescreen rock of "Job Done" or the '60s spy movie soundtrack intrigue of "The Rot Set In." With Scan the Blue, Smith and Todd take their carefully crafted music in a direction that's all the more promising because of its wildness. ~ Heather Phares