The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Personally, The Magnetic Fields is one of those bands that I can’t explain to people, let alone explain to myself.  For almost two decades Stephin Merritt has used the group as his primary outlet for songwriting, but the last couple of years he’s definitely led the group in varying directions, with various effects.  For all intents and purposes, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a great return to form, demonstrating the prowess of Merritt and his band of merrymakers.

“Andrew in Drag” is the second song on the record, but it’s so phenomenal it’s hard not to start with such a track.  The sound’s definitely on the more playful side of things, at least with the accompanying instrumentation, but Merritt’s soaring voice will win you over.  His gifts as a poet, oddball that he may be, shine through here. “Your Girlfriend’s Face” has the same childish tone in the lyrical matter, which harkens back to the days of 69 Love Songs in its accessibility and clarity.  Electronic flourishes seem to be the sound du jour on this outing, rather than the more distortion-based tracks we found on the last two efforts.

“I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” is a great track, featuring vocalist Claudia Gonson, but what really sticks out is its remarkable similarity to Bob Dylan‘s “You Belong to Me.”  I’ve played this song so many times tonight that I’m not sure if I love it for its similarities or on its own merit; regardless, you’ll find this song playing in your mind for days to come. What does stand out when listening to this song is the vocal presence of Gonson throughout Love at the Bottom of the Sea, though I’ve always found myself gravitating more towards the Merritt led tracks.  She’s got a certain light-heartedness in her tone that makes it easy to find that union between music and voice; the band’s usage of electronics definitely fits Gonson here.

But, with Gonson taking a more prominent role here, Merritt seems oddly missing for parts. Of course, “I Don’t Like Your Tone” finds Merritt gently wooing the audience, using the deepness of his voice to draw you into the song.  However, when he comes in on “All She Cares About is Mariachi” it sort of seems like a one-tone approach that he’s used on this Magnetic Fields effort, minus the outstanding “Andrew in Drag.”  I guess I miss the man on the oft-overlooked i.

For all intents and purposes, there are some great songs here on Love at the Bottom of the Sea–one that’s probably goes down as a top in the band’s long cannon.  However, the songs by and large just don’t stand out the way you expect from a Merritt penned tune.  You’ll find the juvenile playfulness and short songs, but for once, theses tracks don’t demand your attention and adoration; they sleek by as cute and enjoyable, yet not wholly remarkable. I’ll still stand by this as a good record, just not my favorite from The Magnetic Fields.

 

The Magnetic Fields – Realism

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Rating: ★★★½ ·

When The Magnetic Fields last put some tracks down on tape with Distortion, we saw the band with a wash of feedback and, well, distortion.  They return, however, with Realism, a record with cleaner production, purposefully, and one that allows the minimalist chamber pop group to open up their doors once again to the more enchanting orchestration of mastermind Stephin Merritt.

Choosing to open the album with “You Must Be Losing Your Mind” is an appropriate choice for the group, as it reflects the traditional songwriting structure that the band used to win over so man fans with 69 Love Songs. Combining the low-end vocals of Merritt with Claudia Gonson creates a sublime juxtaposition.  Musically, it also goes back a bit, which will immediately remind avid fans, and new listeners, how great the band can be when they’re at their best.

By the third song, you find the group at their most playful during “We Are Having a Hootenanny.”  Well, lyrically, its extremely playful, especially with the buzz Merritt attaches to words ending in “s” or “z.”  For some listeners, this will be the precise moment when they get lost in the joy that is the listening experience of having The Magnetic Fields on repeat. Sure, the lyrics aren’t something that will shake you to your core, but the wit used with the rhyme schemes, as well as supplying bountiful oddities, always creates a pleasurable listen.

“Walk a Lonely Road” and “I Don’t Know What to Say” are those perfect pop moments that we all appreciate in Merritt.  You find him low in the vocal range, barely above the level of the music itself, which makes you listen even more closely.  Gentle strumming of the ukulele, or one of its cousins, in these songs consistently resembles some sort of medieval folk tune, which is perhaps why they get lumped into the chamber pop group.  Still, for me, there is always something magical in those moments, as if I’m listening to something that I feel doesn’t fit into my everyday listening, yet it only makes me adore it even more. If you listen to “Seduced and Abandoned,” and do not feel yourself immediately transported back to the times of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms then perhaps you’re not listening close enough.

Yet, the one thing that keeps this album from rising to the top of the band’s overall catalog, which in all honesty is near perfect.  There seems to be a lacking in creativity that was present early on in the album, despite having “The Dada Polka” near the record’s end. For some reason, you feel as if the earlier passion and creativity sort of ran out near the end of recording; it loses the cohesiveness of the album as a whole. Still, there is the saving grace in “From a Sinking Boat.”

It’s strange, but the end of The Magnetic Fields‘ albums always has this one brilliant moment that inevitably brings you back to falling in love with the band. Once again, you find the cello entertaining the tinkering piano, while Merritt sings, barely audible above the instrumentation.  It’s a slow mover, yet it’s a bookend to the entire album. It closes with a bright moment, just as it began.  While the moments in between may not always be the band’s best, it’s hard to find something truly wrong with any of the songs in this collection; this is just another record to enjoy time and time again, as like all MF albums, Realism sort of feels timeless.

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Download: The Magnetic Fields – You Must Be Out Of Your Mind [MP3]

Dent May – The Good Feeling Music of…

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Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele – The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Not much has been made of Dent May, which is quite a shame, as he is the man that fills the void for all those in need of a decent lounge singer to mix with their pop-culture references.  He’s part Jens Lekman, part Stephin Merritt.  The release of his album, The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, is worthy of your ear, so do the man a favor and tune in.

One of the more original elements in Dent May‘s albums seems to be his reliance upon sun-soaked tunes, lending many to note that he leans towards tropicalia. It’s like he’s gone and mixed all  his elementary bar lineage with a trip to somewhere in the Caribbean.

Sure, the use of the ukulele definitely will draw comparisons to the work done on must-have albums like 69 Love Songs, but he’s not simply taking a rip off of his influences.  The infusion of various island elements brings an entirely new spin on the genre of uke-pop.  Each song has its own personality, which is all you can ask when the origins of the songs stem from such a domineering instrument.   He even adds various sound bites throughout to add a little something extra; its his own spin on the genre.

Vocally, you’ll find him walking the line of Merritt and Lekman, which all owes a great debt to lounge singers throughout the history of time.  It’s a vocal that contains remnants of soul, but has a heavy influence of showmanship.  Mixing these qualities together provides for a uniqueness all his own.  Despite similarities to those who visited the land before him, Dent May has a sound all his own.

One thing you can pick out immediately is the songwriting touch, which pays an homage to the obvious influences.  Lyrical content reflects his ability to take mundane, trivial even, stories of life and spin them in a fantastical sense that keeps the listener interested.  It’s a quality of writing that only few before him truly possess, and we’ll leave those names to historians for the time being.  Who wouldn’t love to hear a song about one’s love for Michael Chang?

Rest assured, in the silence times of uke-pop, Dent May has taken over as the king of swinging lounge acts eager to win your heart and your ear.  It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but dammit if it doesn’t make you want to swing someone around in pure glee.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/02-meet-me-in-the-garden.mp3]

Download: Dent May – Meet Me In The Garden [MP3]