Group hug

The crooked folk of Cuddle Magic
By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  December 15, 2009

SWITCH HITS: Cuddle Magic can go from a Lambchop-esque cinematic sprawl to a West African–flavored groove in the shake of a baton.

Things aren’t always what they’re called — we know that flying fish don’t fly and starfish aren’t even fish. As for the experimental chamber-folk ensemble Cuddle Magic (who come to Lizard Lounge tonight), well, they aren’t very cuddly. You can forget the heart-on-notebook indie cuteness suggested by their name — the Brooklyn/Philly nine-piece are more evocative of the sorts of pursuits that might lead to cuddling. Like the din of a jazz club at half past whiskey, the creeping soundtrack of a suspense thriller, or dreams of travels in distant lands.

Yet Cuddle Magic’s random spontaneity is part of the plan. “There was this crazy mathematical graph paper all around me and all around my room,” says composer and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, ukulele, bass, vocals) Ben Davis. He’s describing the experience of writing “Content Contempt,” from Picture, Cuddle Magic’s forthcoming February sophomore release. Putting his New England Conservatory smarts to use, Davis took a 660-beat cycle and tried to turn it into a composition that didn’t sound as if it had been based on graph paper at all. The result sounds like the creation of self-taught musicians wandering into new territory. A contemplative piano theme is met by a fleet of recorders, a rickety banjo, and a droning violin — and those are just the more recognizable instruments. Were it not for the more familiar indie touchstones of Davis’s own laid-back, layered vocals and the hesitant post-rock drumming, it could veer into modern chamber-music territory. But like much of Cuddle Magic’s repertoire, “Content Contempt” is something that can connect with both music heads and those who go on gut alone.

It wasn’t always graphs and oblique compositional concepts for Davis. A second-generation musician, he began his “career” as a child writing songs with his brother Tim (who is Cuddle Magic’s main lyricist) and his father, Peter, a regionally renowned upstate New York multi-instrumentalist. While plying the family trade performing traditional pre-bluegrass contradance music with his father, Davis heard something intricate and fascinating in traditional folk that a lot of listeners seem to miss. As he puts it, “Folk music has a lot of crooked aspects to it.”

Davis went on to New England Conservatory, connecting these crooked dots between academic music and traditional folk and world musics, and eventually he met co-composer and fellow multi-instrumentalist Alec Spiegelman (clarinet, flute, guitar, vocals). Davis and Spiegelman, who both also play with Boston singer-songwriter Miss Tess, then began pulling together the multitude of musicians who would contribute to Cuddle Magic’s debut disc in 2006.

As opposed to a studio project, where players and songwriters are brought in as hired hands, all nine Cuddle Magic participants have roles that are essential. The band can go from a Lambchop-esque cinematic sprawl to a West African–flavored groove (Davis recently spent three months studying music in Mali and Ghana) in the shake of a baton. Those who enjoy music with a bit more focus might be distracted — Cuddle Magic do like to change horses midstream. But if you’re drawn to more precocious music, the rewards are many. Says Davis of their audience, “People can feel the tension being built, like the plot in a movie.” And if you are so inclined, you can grab some popcorn and find someone to cuddle with.

JOY KILLS SORROW + CUDDLE MAGIC | Lizard Lounge, 1667 Mass Ave, Cambridge | December 17 at 8:30 pm | 617.547.0759 or

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