Quick Spins: The Magnetic Fields, 'Realism'

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Magnetic Fields


"Realism," the last release in the Magnetic Fields' "no synths" trilogy, follows 2008's less-loved "Distortion," a droney, feedback-heavy offering often compared, and not favorably, to the lesser works of the Jesus and Mary Chain.

"Realism" is its polar opposite, an all-acoustic disc inspired, according to Fields auteur Stephin Merritt, by Judy Collins albums -- or at least, by the work of Collins's sometime arranger Joshua Rifkin. Like most Magnetic Fields discs, "Realism" is stagey, meta. It telegraphs its intentions: It's not a folk album, it's a concept album about a folk album as done by Merritt.

The frontman is in standard form throughout: He's bookish, peckish, wry. He sounds both bored with and secretly thrilled by how clever he is. His best lyrics, like those in the Bob Mould-evoking "You Must Be Out of Your Mind" ("You can't go around saying stuff/Because it's pretty/And I no longer drink enough/To think you're witty") would fit nicely on the side of a Starbucks cup.

"We Are Having a Hootenanny" is the drollest song on the subject (it might be the only song on the subject) since the Replacements' "Hootenanny." It's one of many baroque, twinkly tracks on the disc, which is totally unplugged and almost drumless and which favors comparatively exotic instrumentation like bouzoukis and tubas.

Claudia Gonson sings lead on several tracks meant as mood-lighteners, palate cleansers between forays by Merritt, who wields his bon mots like IEDs. Gonson's tracks are hopelessly lovely and dangerously well-intentioned -- two things a Magnetic Fields album should never be.

-- Allison Stewart

Recommended tracks:

"You Must Be Out of Your Mind,"

"We Are Having a Hootenanny"

The Magnetic Fields play Feb. 4

at Lisner Auditorium.

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