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.