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Music reviews: Magnetic Fields, Nada Surf, s/s/s, more

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As spring gets on with its inevitable springing, allow me to conduct a little seasonal clean-up of the CD pile. Here's a handful of choice recent releases I've been thinking shouldn't go unnoticed:

magfields.jpgThe Magnetic Fields, "Love at the Bottom of the Sea" (Merge) 2<br />
stars -- More woozy quips from these wry observers of the unrequited side of romance, "Love at the Bottom of the Sea" see-saws between Stephin Merritt's beloved humor and the crucial counterweight of Shirley Simms' and Claudia Gonson's underappreciated, sleepy-Ronettes voices. Merritt's cackle-worthy couplets are usually such gems they've made the accompanying musical dabblings on the last few Magnetic Fields' records (and Merritt's numerous side projects) almost irrelevant. Amid the glitchy digital circus of these tunes, Merritt's lyrics hit the funnybone ("Andrew in Drag," "I'd Go Anywhere With Hugh," "The Machine in Your Hand" that he describes as "a gadget with meat stuck to it") less often than previous outings, but it's refreshing to have Merritt's bored-bass voice more frequently balanced by the female Fields' lighter, winking smirks.
For fans of: Book of Love, Phil Spector, Belle & Sebastian

s / s / s, "Beak & Claw" EP (Anticon) 2<br />
stars -- Indie-pop wunderkind Sufjan Stevens shows up in the oddest hip-hop places. His music wound up as the capstone of the Roots' fine album last year, and now he's working with the rap label Anticon -- which is why this intriguing collaboration occurred. The group's acronym represents Stevens, Chicago rapper Serengeti and knob-twiddler Son Lux. The four songs on this EP represent, well, some potential, anyway. Get past the leaden lead track, "Museum Day," and its AutoTuned drama, for Serengeti's patient but powerful emotional narrative at the heart of "Beyond Any Doubt" and the woozy, bluesy sway of "If This Is Real," featuring My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden. The hooks are blunted and the electronics often distracting (Lux's input seems to be mostly adding static), but the ground feels fertile for more.
For fans of: Aesop Rock, Ava Luna, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy


Nada Surf, "The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy" (Barsuk) 2<br />
stars -- "Every birthday candle that ever got blown out / is one more year of someone trying to figure it all out," sings Matthew Caws ("Looking Through") on Nada Surf's seventh album, released near the band's 20th anniversary. The astrology of "Astronomy," though, can be read a couple of different ways. While no longer widely "Popular," Nada Surf is one of the most dependable modern purveyors of power-pop; in that sense this album is another rock-solid collection of tuneful, optimistic songs with more hooks than a tackle box on a Saturday morning. It's also an album of reflection, which frequently shows up the trio as being quite comfy on those laurels and not exactly pushing themselves. It's power-pop's law of motion: For every undeniably irresistible melody, you can't help thinking you've heard it before.
For fans of: Death Cab for Cutie, the Rembrandts, Teenage Fanclub

Chip Taylor & the New Ukranians, "F--- All the Perfect People" (Train Wreck) 3<br />
and a half stars -- Chip Taylor is a white-haired curmudgeon with a sweet smile and a way with a tune (he wrote "Wild Thing" but also "Angel of the Morning"), and he's been especially prolific in recent years. Pushing the pendulum away from his album of children's music last year, Taylor now serves up this gentle, thoughtful but certainly adult set of countryish ballads. The title track is a gem beyond its viral-worthy chorus -- a growling but hardly menacing dirge advocating the overdue marginalization of the blemishless (while frequently assuring us, "I'm not talking 'bout you"). Backed by a new band of mostly Swedes, plus guitarist John Platania (who played on Van Morrison's "Moondance"), Taylor purrs through amusing but meaningful laments ("Passport Blues," "I Know Dark," the wondrous "New Things") like J.J. Cale without the shuffle. Much of the record is as soft as "Chet Baker Sings," but what it carries really sticks.
For fans of: Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Ronny Elliott

David Sylvian, "A Victim of Stars, 1982-2012" (Virgin) 3<br />
and a half stars -- It took some time for David Sylvian's art-rock band Japan to find its New Romantic footing (on 1979's "Quiet Life" and two subsequent glorious records), but eventually Japan was crafting pop that managed to be sophisticated and adventurous while still providing clubby coiffures with something elegant to dance to. Duran Duran borrowed more than a few of Japan's traits, but as their star rose Japan's sun began setting. Sylvian then embarked on a wide-ranging artistic career in music, film and photography. Collaborating with like minds, from Ryuichi Sakamoto ("Bamboo Houses," "Forbidden Colors") to Arto Lindsay and Robert Fripp, Sylvian's solo work since has alternated between beautiful, jazzy pop and dissonant sonic challenges. A lifelong fan, I confess his most recent work, the nonlinear "Manafon" oddity (2009) and its reboot, "Died in the Wool" (2011), is lost on me, and I stuck with him through the fractured noise experiments of 2003's "Blemish." But experiencing these three decades in a single, two-disc set is a surprisingly smooth arc, starting with a remix of Japan's "Ghosts" (which brings Sylvian's sonorous, sinusy voice to the front of the mix), through his besting of Level 42 at white-boy funk-pop ("Pulling Punches") and two tracks worth salvaging from the creative but head-scratching Japan reunion in 1991 (Rain Tree Crow) to the similarly sparse new song, exclusive to this set, "Where's Your Gravity?"
For fans of: Brian Eno, Talk Talk's "Laughingstock," King Crimson's "Matte Kudasai"


Jill Barber, "Mischievous Moon" (Outside) 3<br />
and a half stars -- PBS's Idea Channel posted an amusing YouTube commentary recently asking the question: Who's more authentic, Lana Del Rey or Hatsune Miku? The latter is a computer-generated avatar, and the conclusions weighed in "her" favor. Trying to be something you're not -- that's inauthentic, surely. But what if the music you want to make is unavoidably anachronistic? Thankfully, in an iPod-shuffled age, the temporal connection of most musical eras and genres is moot, so an album like Jill Barber's latest, "Mischievous Moon," can be both unabashedly imitative and utterly honest. A stirring cocktail of Patsy Cline and Edith Piaf, this Toronto-based vocalist simply moves forward from a much earlier point of reference, building on 1960s lighter-than-air orchestrated jazz-pop. Her honeyed voice glides through romantic reveries ("Chances," "Never Quit Loving You," "A Wish Under My Pillow") and the occasional bold step (the gospel 'n' vibes of "Oh My My"), and around every satin-cushioned corner she gives us an irony-free wink. (If she'd have sung "Zou Bisou Bisou," no one would have laughed or squirmed.) "Mischievous Moon" could have come out 35 years ago instead of this week, and it would rate as highly either way.
For fans of: "Mad Men," Burt Bacharach, Ivy
In concert: Barber is scheduled April 24 at Schubas.


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1 Comment

Thanks for sharing reviews of these bands. The video for "Red Guitar" proves that you can incorporate a variety of influences that were popular in the 80's. Great read.

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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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