The Magnetic Fields write Eternally Great Pop Songs. Have since 1991, will, we hope, for years to come. Stephin Merritt conceives infinities of combinations of a foolhardy formula, and minor key changes to patterns of romance-filled composition enable this: a ninth album in the name of reality, truth, and all-acoustic recording. Realism stands as the flipside to 2008’s Distortion, whose electric guitars and fuzzy amplification produced a blend of honey power pop reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. Realism does away with this temporary rock aspiration, returns to non-amplified orchestration, and stops flirting with feedback, as Merritt again says, ‘I Love You’ through his characters’ songs. »
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magnetic fields' third nonesuch disc, 'realism', is the flipside to the industrial pop of the quartet's brilliant 2008 homage to, of all things, the clangourous sound of the jesus and mary chain. while 'distortion' was recorded quickly and noisily in the stairwells and rooms of the new york city apartment building to which singer-songwriter-bandleader stephen merritt was about to bid adieu for california, 'realism' was cut in the distortion-free environs of a los angeles studio, and its sound is as pristine as a plein-air painting. there are no drum kits to be heard, and the fascinatingly varied instrumentation - guitars, accordions, violins, cellos, tablas, banjos, tuba, even a smattering of mellifluous falling leaves - did not need to be plugged in. and, as with 'distortion', the album credits emphasize: no synths. with tongue only slightly in cheek, merritt has taken to declaring his 'folk' album. to get the point across, there is an upbeat, sing-along number early in the set called 'we are having a hootenany'. merritt's inspirations, however, were the orchestrated, mostly british folk of the late sixties / early seventies - which owe as much to sixties psychedelia as to traditional music - and the work of judy collins, who stretched the boundaries of 'folk' with the chamber-pop arrangements of such albums as 'in my life' and 'wildflowers'. like collins, merritt favours variety and theatricality. she skipped from jacques brel to the beatles; he goes from the trippy, toy-box melodies of 'the dolls' tea party' and 'painted flower' to the foot-stomping rhythms of 'the dada polka' (for which one only has to get up and 'do something'). there's even a deceptively festive holiday number, 'everything is one big christmas tree', featuring a lusty chorus sung in german - kurt weill in a holiday mood. in content, merritt's songs veer between longing and loneliness, desire and dismissal, romance and revenge. reality is as distorted as ever, and the characters who populate his songs are never just plain folk. along with his long-time band-mates sam davol, claudia gonson and john woo, merritt is joined again by vocalist shirley simms and accordionist daniel handler (aka novelist lemony snicket, with whom merritt created the gothic archies' faux children's disc, the tragic treasury). also on board: horn player johnny blood and violinist ida pearle, familiar to fans of magnetic fields' earlier, independently released work.
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