It wasn’t too long ago that Amy Bezunartea was impressing the ATH crew with her vocal performance as the opening act for Stephin Merritt. That alone, makes her worthy of a mention on any day, but we are also happy to share that she’s just announced a brand new album, New Villain. Like Merritt, Amy has a way with word play, with the music almost coming in secondary, though that’s not to diminish the work on this song. There’s some careful little touches, from distorted chords to deep piano touches, leaving us with some great production work. You’ll be able to grab the new album on September 25th via Kiam Records.
When you’re given the opportunity to catch Stephin Merritt, you better believe I’m going to jump at the chance. I’ve been obsessed with Stephin’s work for close to two decades, marveling at his wit, and his output. He brought along fellow Magnetic Fields member Sam Davol for accompaniment, packed folks into the Central Presbyterian Church and treated us to an evening of tunes from his catalog, spanning A to Z.
Read on for my thoughts, and for photos from Brian Gray.
Let’s face it, once we wake up on Wednesday morning, it’s going to be a shit show. Tons of things going on, including local bands, touring acts and festivals. So, let’s start off by pointing you to one of the shows I’m most looking forward to, Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields playing at Central Presbyterian Wednesday night. He’s playing with Sam Davol, and I’m honestly not sure what the set will include, though it’s sure to be great. Put his MF work aside and Stephin’s scored plays, written accompanying songs to young adult literature and been involved in various other projects, so he’s got a huge category to draw from…and seeing him at the church will surely be remarkable. And despite his history as a curmudgeon, I’ve always found him quite endearing, sot he intimate setting seems the perfect way to see him. Doors are at 7, and you can grab tickets HERE. Listen to one of my favorite songs below.[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/14-Its-Only-Time.mp3]
Ever since I first caught wind of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti it always seemed like (it actually was) one man’s recording project. It was steeped in lo-fi recordings, occasionally allowing for the pop elements to leak out into the listener’s ear. On Mature Themes, throw all your preconceived notions out the window and get ready for Ariel Pink’s pop extravaganza.
I swear that the first time I heard album opener “Kinski Assassin” I thought I had stumbled upon some rare Magnetic Fields track. Deep vocal tones backed by keyboard backbones are most prevalent, fueled by witty bits of lyrics that might only connect with the songwriter. It’s actually a solid tune, just not what I expected here. From here it blasts off with “Is This the Best Spot,” which definitely sounds more like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti have opted to make a video game piece…it’s like the oddball version of Blank Dogs–not necessarily a bad thing.
While the group’s received a lot of praise for their work in the past, I feel as if the accessibility of Mature Themes alone warrants more fans and listeners, though that might steer away the hipster cognoscenti. “Only In My Dreams” approximates the group’s quirky psych hits, but the production has made way for clarity that makes the record leaps and bounds better than its predecessor. There’s warm tones from the guitar, relaxed backing vocals and a central pop element…yet it’s definitely still as playful as ever. “Farewell American Primitive” is another track where the clarity of the pop element provides listeners with a chance to really sink themselves into the song. You can just take one listen to the vocals and you’ll see that this track is moving the band in a more direct approach to songwriting, and that will vastly benefit anyone who picks this up.
Still, I’m not going to get rid of the allusions to Stephin Merritt, though there’s slight differences present. “Symphony of the Nymph” is another example of a track where Ariel Pink are flirting with more sincerity in their songwriting, using simple rhyme with the lyrics to provide a much-needed hook. But, of course, the group’s always been built upon pushing the limits of their craft, and even within this track they do it successfully, happily letting the tune take turns left and right, only to return to the central pop song.
Admittedly, I can see that Mature Themes is not nearly as weird and out there as many listeners thought Before Today was. You’ll find more tunes that allow you to sink your teeth into the lyrics, rather than coat them in meaningless atmospherics and yelps. For some, that’s going to be a detractor, as they want Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti to be their own secret joy, but with some of the best song the band’s constructed to date, that’s not going to be the case this go round. Ignore the recent drama of the group and ignore the ideas you already have about the group. If you do so, you’re going to find yourself pleased with a pop record that’s got far more longevity than anything the group’s put together before.[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/04-Only-In-My-Dreams.mp3]
Download:Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Only In My Dreams [MP3]
Sonny Smith is most well-known, at least in the Interwebs for his work with the Sunsets, but the songwriter also has a few plays under his belt, although they’re probably more apt to be performed in song. Luckily, the good people over at Secret Seven Records have released One Act Plays, a recording of songs/plays that Sonny recorded back in 2006 for a play called The Dangerous Stranger.
Musically, it’s sort of what you expect from Sonny Smith, though it’s him stripped down to his bare bones, naked in front of the listener, as a true performer would be. His voice in these recordings closely resembles Bill Callahan, which is fitting seeing as he’s playing the role of storyteller in these tunes. But, he’s also got a lot of help from his friends such as Neko Case, Jolie Holland and Mark Eitzel; having all those guests on one record alone makes One Act Plays worthy of your purchase…and listening.
Thematically, Sonny admits to dealing with issues about family and redemption, and he also gives a nod to Sam Shepard. But, despite the well-developed characters (as much as one can in one act), Smith perhaps should acknowledge the great job he did turning these acts into actual songs, so much so that you can get lost in the songs themselves. My favorite is probably “The Stick-Up” just because it’s so stripped down, and the I chuckled each time the mention of stage directions comes into play; you don’t often get stage directions turned into actual lyrics. It’s odd, but in providing musical accompaniment, the characters are humanized, which is precisely what a good playwright would hope to do. You’ll even find “The Stick-Up (Part Two)” wrapping up the record, in case you feel like Sonny left you without a proper ending. Just remember, “when you shoot somebody, there ain’t no going back.”
Honestly, this isn’t a listening experience for everyone out there. But, there’s definitely an audience for this, as Stephin Merritt can attest. While I enjoy the music quite a bit, I appreciate the combination of literary elements being thrust into the foreground. For instance, the dialogue in “The Terrible Truth” brings to life a conversation between two men, who appear to be friends. It begins in a call-and-response manner, as a dialogue would appear on stage, but there’s a moment when the vocals unite, and it’s such an emotional moment that your body can’t help but tingle just a bit; then it ends. Like much of the songs, they’re all a separate entity or chapter, but they fit together, united by theme and song. Only Sonny Smith seems capable of doing such a thing. Find one song to love, or love them all, but if you love the theatre and you love music, then pick yourself up a copy of One Act Plays.[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/01-The-Stick-Up.mp3]
Download:Sonny Smith – The Stick-Up [MP3]
You can order the LP directly from Secret Seven Records.
Hearing that Dent May had ditched his ukulele, I was a little bit scared about his newest release for Paw Tracks, Do Things. But, the more I listen to this album, the more I realized that it’s less about his instrument, and more about his voice; it’s still very affecting, which makes listening to the whole record just as enjoyable as his first.
It all starts off with a bouncy number, “Rent Money,” propelled forward by synthetic sounds, yet Dent’s croon is strong as we’ve heard it. He’s got a memorable voice, but his control over that instrument is what makes his songs so special–here he sings about the trials of trying to earn a living, in a manner that only May can. “Fun” follows, with a similar focus of backing pieces, but this is perhaps my favorite performance of his on Do Things. Each verse sees the rise and fall of the pitch in the vocals, which in an odd way reminds me of Stephin Merritt‘s distinctive voice.
By the time you get to the single, “Best Friend,” you might begin to find yourself a bit disappointed, as the songwriting begins to get a little to familiar. It’s filled with hooks, just like the rest of the tracks that come before it, but there’s nothing extraordinary about the construction of the accompanying beats, leading Dent May down a path of pop redundancy. There’s traces of differentiation coming in and out of the record, but they don’t do enough to push the record beyond the stage of mediocrity.
“Find Out” opens with a slight guitar riff, but by the time vocals and percussion mix, it’s fading into the background to stay. These are the sorts of things that you wish May would have messed with in the final mix of Do Things, adding something special to the formula that would give more emphasis to the tracks. I mean, “Wedding Day” has a nice jagged guitar line cutting through it too, and I quite like the song, despite its rather mundane electronic sampling. I wonder what would happen if he just turned that guitar up a little bit (you don’t always have to go to 11). It would seem that what needs to happen is to get Dent some musicians who can join in the fun of his quirky songs. They’re good, they’re enjoyable, but in the end they’re ultimately not too memorable.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how much I adore Dent May and his songwriting, even with some of the knocks I’ve taken on Do Things. I give him credit for stepping outside the comfortable realm, but perhaps a bit more time would have really benefited the record. It’s fun and easily listenable, but does have a tendency to go into the background too easily…that’s not how we knew him on his first run. Let’s chalk it up to a bit of the sophomore slump, and hope he gets back on track the next go round…based on these songs, he’s really not too far off.[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/04-Best-Friend.mp3]
Download:Dent May – Best Friend [MP3]
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.
For some, Stephin Merritt probably ties into their lives at every corner, as he seems to craft brilliant tunes at almost every turn. Yet, despite his work with Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, and various other projects, he remains largely a cult hero to most, and an oddball to dissenters. That being said, fans of his work will probably find endless enjoyment in Obscurities, while other will, sadly, continue to look the other way.
“Forever and a Day” begins the record as only Stephin can, offering up a solemn bit of ukulele, meant to accompany many on their way to the altar. It’s easily one of the standouts on this collection, demonstrating how delicate his songwriting can be. If you wished for someone to write the perfect love song for you, the odds are Merritt has it stored away somewhere. Even those longing for the love of nature will find their needs met with “The Sun and the Sea and the Sky,” an ode to the remarkable powers of the environment to shine into our lives.
Perhaps one of the things that has kept the masses from adoring Stephin Merritt is his tendency to amuse himself with either his writing or his instrumentation. Take, “When I’m Not Looking, You’re Not There,” for instance, which seems to have sort of a glitch approach to Merritt’s typical construction, filled with beeps and blips, oddly uniting to fit the song’s goals. Even the touches used on the out-of print 7″ track ” I Don’t Believe You” seem to disjoint the song, but I suppose that my own love of the later version that appeared on I, which is one of my favorite works by The Magnetic Fields.
Still, even when he’s crafting mock numbers, such as “Plant White Roses,” which alludes to the works of Patsy Cline, he’s successful. Yes, there’s a female vocal here, but Merritt’s always employed that touch in parts on his work, so it truly is the crafty melody that warms you over. Or you can take a look a listen to “Rot in the Sun,” just to see what he’s been able to accomplish, using electronic sounds oddly reminiscent of “Eye” by Smashing Pumpkins. For me, it illustrates his ability to start somewhere, either a bar or his bedroom, using the melody to build the song, and using whichever instrument fits the melody the best.
In the end, Obscurities, is definitely a collection piece. It’s not nearly as thematically cohesive as the majority of his work tends to be, so this, in my opinion, is not the place to start your love affair with Stephin Merritt. However, those who adore him will find pleasant things, was nostalgic, and revisit his entire collection. Merritt’s one of those musicians who you can’t ignore, and even here, on a haphazard collection, you’ll find him sinking beneath your skin, finding his way to your heart.[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Stephin-Merritt-Forever-And-A-Day.mp3]
Download: Stephin Merritt – Forever And A Day [MP3]
Long have I adored Stephin Merritt, in pretty much any capacity. So, today Merge Records announced they’d be selling Obscurities, a collection of Merritt rarities, not just those with his work with the Magnetic Fields. Some of these would stem from his work on the science-fiction he did with Lemony Snicket, while others would be culled from those hard to get releases man MF fans swoon over. Merritt even commented on the songs, telling Sterogum that he thought this might have been the best song he’d ever penned that was meant for a wedding. While I’ll admit, it has its beauty, in my mind the winner will always be “It’s Only Time” from the album, i. Regardless, the world’s always a better place with Merritt’s writing.[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Stephin-Merritt-Forever-And-A-Day.mp3]
Download: Stephin Merritt – Forever And A Day [MP3]
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.[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/01-You-Must-Be-Out-Of-Your-Mind.mp3]
Download: The Magnetic Fields – You Must Be Out Of Your Mind [MP3]