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Oakland’s abracadabra Hops in Soapbox Derby Cars for ‘in a photo’

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a young white man with longish brown hair in a dark sweater stands next to a white woman with light pink hair in a purple jacket against a concrete wall
Chris Niles and Hannah Skelton of abracadabra, whose record 'shapes & colors' drops Jan. 20. (Kristen Cofer)

Welcome to Pass the Aux, where KQED Arts & Culture brings you our favorite new tracks by Bay Area artists. Check out past entries and submit a song for future coverage.

This one had me from the get-go, powerless before the combination of a groovy bass line and stop-motion animation. The jittery handmade charm that opens abracadabra’s music video for “in a photo” — the first single off their upcoming album shapes & colors — belies the song’s bright and steady beat. There’s nothing rushed or slapdash about the way the Oakland duo of Hannah Skelton and Chris Niles work their way through this song, a reflection on the difference between idealized images and lived reality.

Decked out in coveralls and ski goggles, Skelton and Niles climb into a giant pencil and its accompanying eraser (real artist-designed soapbox derby cars that took a star turn at last year’s SFMOMA event in McLaren Park) as Skelton sings a delightful pun in her bell-like voice: “Time flies / on a tiny plane.”

Magic School Bus-style, the musicians ride their vehicles into a bowl of blue Jell-o, emerging with a full band in a kind of underwater prom-themed venue. Alternating between spoken and sung deliveries (and a nice call-and-response I’ll attribute to Niles), the song channels the Tom Tom Club and ESG in all the best ways.

abracadabra’s sweetness on “in a photo” is tempered by a cascading minor-key chorus, and the recurring (quite existential!) question of “Will you really ever be the photo?” It’s clear from Skelton’s delivery that you — we — shouldn’t want to be the photo. The photo is too perfect and no fun at all.

Instead, “in a photo” is refreshingly tangible, with a plinky cowbell punctuating Skelton’s lyrics and grins all around. The simple, unadulterated pleasure everyone involved seems to be having is decidedly un-digital, un-smooth and unmediated.

If this is an anti-Instagram song, I’m here for it.

abracadabra’s ‘shapes & colors’ is out Jan. 20.


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