Tuesday, November 11
Pieces of April soundtrack by Stephin Merrit
Let's Get Ready to Crumble by The Russian Futurists
Maryland Mansions by Cex
Stephin Merritt hasn’t been seen much around these parts lately. Most folks who were freshmen when he last graced Olde Club with the Magnetic Fields graduated in June; their magnum opus 69 Love Songs, whose booklet features a photo of the band comatose in Parrish Parlors, is now four years old. Apart from an appealing record with the 80’s-inspired Future Bible Heroes project, the man I once described as the patron saint of Swarthmore indie rock has been mostly silent since then, his prominence in WSRN playlists dwindling gradually. But that’s about to change. A new MagFields album is due next Spring, and if we can take the short but tuneful Pieces of April soundtrack [27 minutes, 10 tracks] as an indication, it will have been worth the wait.
Presumably intended as both a stopgap for diehards and a lure for the Merritt-blind audiences of the sweet but mediocre film (see Ester’s review in last week’s Phoenix), I find it best to think of the disc as a generous single for its lead-off track. "All I Want To Know" easily ranks among Merritt’s best work, with its characteristically infectious, instantly hummable melody and wistfully wry self-deluding lyrics in the tradition of "I’m Lonely (and I Love It)." Most importantly, it just sounds beautiful; it’s instrumentally richer than anything he’s done before, with chiming, subtly, insistent celli, shimmering zither(?) interjections, and group harmonies underscoring a full, poignant lead vocal. This is the clear highlight, but the four other new songs are worthy, vintage Merritt as well, and share the newfound sonic fullness of the opener. The remainder of the album eschews the short, wordless score fragments of Merritt’s Eban and Charlie soundtrack for a handful of old tunes – three of the absolute best 69LS cuts and a pair from the lackluster Sixths record Hyacinths and Thistles – which make it a more cohesive "album" but less rewarding for the established fan. So, is it worth it for five new songs? Maybe wait and see how many of them end on the album.
In the mean time, Merritt followers would do well to check out the like-minded Russian Futurists, whose sophomore effort, Let’s Get Ready to Crumble [28 minutes, 10 tracks] sounds uncannily like early Magnetic Fields. These synth-drenched compositions, (made and recorded at home by one guy, Torontonian Matthew Adam Hart) combine an appealingly off-kilter melodic sensibility with playful, convoluted lyrical style in a way that increases the effectiveness of both. I could quote you some lines (like "I do pop/‘cause that’s what my heart goes/I don’t call it art, no sir/that denotes/that when I wrote it/I had other motives," from the showstopping title track), but they aren’t nearly as effective divorced from their disjunct, improbably infectious melody, not to mention the densely layered, weirdly funky lo-fi drum-machine & synth accompaniment. "Precious Metals" is impossibly cute dance-pop; "It’s Actually Going to Happen" mixes some harmonica in with the synths and sweetly anticipates a love that will work. Not every song is as effortlessly buoyant as these highlights, but in all it’s a remarkably solid and lovable little record.
But little. That’s okay – the album is so full of detail that it doesn’t up feeling short. On the other hand, pushing this under-thirty-minute "full-length" business a bit too far, we have IDM/hiphop/emo enfant terrible Cex, following up April’s ambitious (and mostly successful) double-set Being Ridden by trying to flog Maryland Mansions [25 minutes, 8 tracks] (oh, i just got that!) as a full-length LP. Cex, still only a year older than me, works ridiculously fast – I heard him rock most of these joints live in March, when he was apparently already tired of the Being Ridden material – so I can only assume he’s moved past the relatively non-illuminating phase documented here. It’s not that there’s a dearth of ideas; in fact the record strikes a nice balance between the cohesion of early "single-genre" efforts and the stylistic range of his last album. Cex continues to improve as a producer, offering up some truly compelling textural sculptures, which are noticeably darker than past work, but this time at least he doesn’t bring the songwriting skills to complete the picture. Lyrical tendencies toward nihilism and self-deprecation, split between confessional soul-searching mode and over-the-top parody (the chorus of the rappish, catchy "Stop Eating" proclaims: "food is disgusting/it’s what they make shit from") are fitting, given the industrial, almost gothic tone of the disc, but they don’t make for very compelling listening. Cex pours so much passion into everything he does that his records are always at least interesting, but (if this is really supposed to be a full-length) I’d just as soon have waited a few more months for something more fully developed. But then, I’m sure it won’t be long until his next.