It’s not that Katie Toupin was wasted on Houndmouth, the Americana band she co-founded earlier this decade. But the group’s roots-rock sound, built around manufactured down-home nostalgia, was definitely limiting for a musician who took opera-singing lessons and studied songcraft to teach herself what works and why. Freed from the gingham-checked constraints of Houndmouth, Toupin displays more range and greater depth on her solo debut, Magnetic Moves, released just over three years after she left her previous band.
There’s little of that group’s heartland aesthetic on Magnetic Moves. Instead, Toupin has made a pop album with an undercurrent of soul—styles that suit her earthy, tuneful voice, and let her flex her chops as a songwriter and a producer. She sings a lot about yearnings of the heart in a way that sounds familiar without veering into cliches. Toupin confesses an infatuation in a slightly ironic way on the buoyant title track, where a stinging guitar lick punctuates verses carried along by floating keyboards. She’s direct about how she’s feeling on “I Need You,” a gently swaying song that wraps her voice in layers of jangly guitars over stutter-step drums. Toupin resists the temptation to leap without taking a hard look on “Run to You,” a soaring song that makes potent use of repetition. Toupin leans hard on the refrain—“I held on to broken pieces / Far too long to run to you, run to you”—singing it over and over, before switching up the cadence and melody and turning the chorus into a verse, her voice reverberating over a wall of bristling guitars and a steady beat as she brings the song home.
The repetition is hypnotic, and she employs it in different forms throughout Magnetic Moves. The lyrics she’s repeating don’t matter as much as the fact that she’s repeating them: Toupin writes great hooks, and she has the savvy to go back to the chorus time and again, on song after song. The result, of course, is that they stick in your head. Sometimes that’s because the tunes are frothy and upbeat, though she goes in a different direction with the rich, mournful gospel sound of “Lost Sometimes.” A resonant piano vamp carries the song, augmented after the first verse with a sharp handclap in the middle of every measure, and then drums by the third time through. Toupin starts slowly and quietly, her voice growing in power as she lets it ring over a choir of backing vocals until it sounds like she’s pouring out her soul, and sending chills up your spine.
Though Toupin gave herself plenty of room to play with musical arrangements and song styles on Magnetic Moves, she never strays far from her strengths as a singer and a songwriter. The fact that she has the confidence on her first solo album to follow her instincts speaks to another of Toupin’s attributes, one that doesn’t come from singing lessons or dissecting classic songs: innate good taste.