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Thursday, January 28th, 2010

I Don't Know What To Say

Review of The Magnetic Fields’ Realism

Image via NonesuchNonesuchI recently finished reading Our Noise, the book about Merge Records’ 20th anniversary (which is excellent and highly recommended, by the way), and was struck by three of the bands covered in-depth, and the paths they’ve taken. There was Spoon, who despite becoming more successful with each album have chosen to stick with the label that got them there; Neutral Milk Hotel, who retired after crafting their masterpiece; and The Magnetic Fields, who used their own career-defining work as a stepping stone to the majors, and a deal with Nonesuch. And much like the problem of a sports team signing a free agent player after a career year, there was no guarantee that they’d ever be able to repeat the feat.

While hardly idle in the past decade – Stephin Merritt has tried his hand at soundtracks and musicals – the output from the formerly prolific Magnetic Fields has slowed down considerably, with this week’s Realism only their third release in the past decade and, perhaps more importantly, the final part of their self-declared “no synths” trilogy. Important not so much because it represents the climax of another creative masterwork, but because the return to synthesized sounds on the next record will hopefully mean a return to form for the band.

This is not to suggest that the problems with The Magnetic Fields’ 21st century output have been chiefly tied to their choice of instrumentation or their choice of label. It’s just that since the concepts behind their albums switched from thematic to aesthetic, they’ve been consistently less memorable. And it’s not that writing songs whose titles began with the letter “i” – as on i – or are recorded with an early Jesus & Mary Chain production style – as on the aptly-titled Distortion – couldn’t yield good records; it’s just that they haven’t been up to the standard of earlier Magnetic Fields works and I’d rather blame the conceit than the creator.

Realism‘s angle is that it’s the folk-pop record, recorded almost completely with acoustic instruments, and as such it’s sonically lovely; the guitars, strings and woodwinds far more pleasing to these ears, at least, than the unrelenting square wave-ism of Distortion. On the songwriting side of things, however, it sadly fits with its predecessors as feeling decidedly detached and not measuring up to what Merritt has already proven himself capable of. Certainly it’s melodic and more than few clever turns of phrase, but the honest, emotional vulnerability that was present in his Merge-era work and which seemed to evaporate post-Love Songs remains elusive, hidden behind a shield of irony. But Merritt has always been more interested in the craftsmanship of the song rather than its potential as a means of personal, emotional expression so perhaps this isn’t a surprise, and more the natural and inevitable evolution of his art. I personally hope that’s not the case, and somewhere in the closet with all his synths also lies his heart and they’ll all be back in play with the next record.

The Magnetic Fields play the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on February 8. Exclaim has assembled a timeline following the career of Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields. The National Post, CBC, Metro Weekly, Spinner, Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound all have interviews with Merritt and DiS also has a stream of the album. There’s also a series of videos about the making of the record over at Nonesuch and How Fucking Romantic is a wonderful blog dedicated to rendering 69 Love Songs in illustration.

MP3: The Magnetic Fields – “Everything Is One Big Christmas”
Video: The Magnetic Fields – “We Are Having A Hootenanny”
Stream: The Magnetic Fields / Realism
MySpace: The Magnetic Fields

Exclaim and NPR have interviews with Spoon. They’re at the Sound Academy on March 29.

Paper and The Baltimore Sun have feature interviews with Beach House, whose Teen Dream was finally released this week. Of all the videos they briefly premiered last week, the one for “Silver Soul” has stuck around. The others can be seen on the DVD component of the album. They play the Opera House on March 30.

Video: Beach House – “Silver Soul”

Prefix talks to Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasser and Andy Stack. They’ll be at Lee’s Palace on April 1 opening up for Shearwater.

Shearwater frontman Jonathan Meiburg has penned a piece for The Huffington Post on the topics of climate change and population explosion. Their new album The Golden Archipelago is out February 23.

Dallas Observer has a huge feature on Midlake while The Line Of Best Fit and QuickDFW interview frontman Tim Smith. Their new album The Courage Of Others is out next week but streaming at NPR now, while The Guardian will be giving away five studio session tracks from the band this Saturday.

Stream: Midlake / The Courage Of Others

Pitchfork has some details on and a stream of a new song from Joanna Newsom’s forthcoming triple – you read that right – album Have One On Me, out March 23. She plays The Phoenix on March 13.

Tulsa World interviews Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan.

Sterogum gets a progress report from School Of Seven Bells on their second album Disconnect From Desire, due out this Spring.

Spinner talks to Rogue Wave’s Zach Schwartz about their new record Permalight, due out March 2. They’re at the Mod Cub on February 26.

MP3: Rogue Wave – “Good Morning”

Black Book talks to Steve Earle.

Full dates for the Serena Maneesh North American tour have been announced, but contrary to what the listing says the April 2 Toronto show will indeed be at The Great Hall, as previously reported, and not the Opera House. I asked; it’s cool. S-M 2: Abyss In B Minor is still out March 23 and a second MP3 from the record has just been put out into the world.

MP3: Serena Maneesh – “I Just Want To See Your Face”

By : Frank Yang at 8:27 am
Category: General

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  1. 2fs says:

    No heart in Merritt’s Nonesuch work? I suggest you give “It’s Only Time” another listen – for my money, that’s one of the most heartbreaking, emotive songs in his catalog.