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Magnetic Fields, "Realism" (Nonesuch) [1.5 STARS out of 4]

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Conceived as a contrasting bookend to the aptly titled "Distortion" (2008), the ninth album from absurdly prolific singer, songwriter and stylistic chameleon Stephin Merritt trades its predecessor's walls of guitar noise for tinkling bells, plucked banjo, wheezing accordion and bleating tuba for its auteur's version of '60s folk-rock. The New York artist has said he was aiming for Judy Collins, but with his baritone voice and fondness for baroque filigree, he actually comes closer to mellow Jethro Tull.

This isn't a new trend on the current indie-rock scene--witness the Decemberists--and though his barbed lyrical wit produces more than a few gems ("I no longer drink enough to think you're witty," he sings in the opening track, "You think you can simply press rewind, you must be out of your mind"), it's not a sound that really suits him. Several tracks miss the homey, rootsy vibe or stripped-down intimacy that seems to have been the goal, instead achieving a prissy, fussy tweeness--as the titles might indicate, "The Doll's Tea Party," "We Are Having A Hootenanny" and "The Dada Polka" are especially annoying.

Though plenty of critics continue to hail the Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs" (1999) as a masterpiece, that epic triple album easily could have been cut in half, and Merritt always has shared similar problems with fellow home recording maven Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices: a chronic inability to edit himself, and a reluctance or unwillingness to focus on his strengths at the expense of genre experiments that just fall flat. Excepting a few tunes spotlighting the gorgeous vocals of Claudia Gonson, "Realism" is one of those failures.

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Jim, I usually agree with your negative reviews, and disagree with your positive ones. :P But this one breaks the pattern.

I think people might be disappointed if they're expecting Magnetic Fields to make a traditional folk album and adapt themselves to that genre. No, this album isn't homey or rootsy... They're using acoustic/folk-type instruments, but Stephin Merritt's writing in his usual style. And it may be lacking intimacy, as you say...I think a bit too much echo on the vocals sometimes creates this feeling of detachment. But I'm sure that's intentional - maybe the echo was meant to convey distance/faraway old tyme-y feeling.

It's a bit weird, but I liked it once I got used to the sound and mood. Still melodic, with clever lyrics, as I expected from Merritt. His strengths *are* still apparent here. And why not keep things interesting for himself with genre experiments? (Although I think the last Magnetic Fields album, Distortion, was more experimental, or at least more risky, because they were concealing the trademark Merritt melodies and lyrics.)

So basically, I agree with some of your observations, but not your conclusion or rating. :)

And The Dada Polka ROCKS!

P.S. The Decemberists strike me as dull and pretentious, with none of Merritt's merits.

Jim - This album rocks! All those years listening to the Grateful Dead have warped your mind!

Jimbo - You missed the boat on this one. I know you're a big Deadhead; all those years you spent listening to Drums and Space have warped yer mind!

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on February 2, 2010 11:36 AM.

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