The Magnetic Fields – Realism

The Magnetic Fields’ 2008 album, Distortion, was a wilful, pugnacious hymn to its own title, revelling gleefully in its lack of resemblance to any previous Magnetic Fields album. Stephin Merritt’s characteristically crisp lyrical sketches were suddenly shrouded in squalls of Jesus & Mary Chain-ish effects, and the passing listener could have been forgiven for wondering whether he had finally abandoned the erudite indictments of Cupid that have characterised his career in favour of anguished, primal wailing.

Any and all such concerns are assuaged by the opening track of Realism, The Magnetic Fields’ ninth album. You Must Be Out of Your Mind is absolutely prime Merritt – an arrangement of strings and banjo at once sumptuous and lo-fi, an ambitious and instantly beguiling melody, and a typically waspish lyric that confirms Merritt’s stature as the most inventive rhymer in the American lineage since Tom Lehrer: “I want you crawling back to me / Down on your knees, yeah,” he admonishes, “Like an appendectomy / sans anaesthesia”.

Realism was apparently conceived as a companion volume to Distortion – original working titles were True and False – and there would have been a certain logic to that arrangement: Realism finds The Magnetic Fields returning to previously established patterns and parameters (within their canon, Realism is most closely related to 1999’s mordant epic 69 Love Songs). This is, of course, absolutely no problem. Merritt’s songs are, as ever, as lugubrious yet playful as his voice. On Seduced And Abandoned he imagines himself pregnant and jilted at the altar (“I did nothing but cry / In my one-ply / Negligee”); deadpan carol Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree is as sarcastic as might be imagined; and We Are Having a Hootenanny appears to be a square-dance called by a Scientology spruiker (“Come and take our personality quiz,” entices the second verse).

The rule governing Realism’s sessions was that no instrument that required plugging in would be admitted to the studio. The sound throughout is nevertheless trademark Magnetic Fields – that strange gothic folk composed of whimsical flights of toytown piano, knelling banjo and mandolin, pretty strings, grumbling tubas, consistently confirming what unusually inventive arrangers Merritt and his cohorts are (not for the first time, the only real peers called to mind are Neil Hannon’sDivine Comedy). It may all amount to a band doing what they’ve done before, but given nobody else does anything like this, that’s entirely welcome.

Simple record and simple packaging, albeit with a lyric sheet insert. Copies are meant to come with a cd of the album although mine didn’t. Vinyl is a decent pressing. Sound is lo-fi.

Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

The Plastic Beach back story – colourful fluff about cyborg bassists, kidnapped singers and islands made of trash – might make you think the whole cartoon band conceit is wearing a bit thin. Listen, though, and it makes more sense than ever.

Only behind such a distracting smokescreen could Damon Albarn get away with conducting a project as sprawling, daring, innovative, surprising, muddled and magnificent as Plastic Beach: not just one of the best records of 2010, but a release to stand alongside the greatest Albarn’s ever been involved with and a new benchmark for collaborative music as a whole.

Not that you’d think that from the first couple of tracks. After a meandering, seagull-strewn string intro, Snoop Dogg phones in his contribution to lounge rap number Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach. You’d be forgiven for assuming Gorillaz had found their place as Damon’s token hip hop side project. Then, the first handbrake turn in what will be a head-spinning ride. White Flag opens as the world’s only Shinto Bollywood track before Kano and Bashy trade anti-war, anti-crime and anti-religion rhymes over trashy Casio beats. It’s the first of a plethora of jaw-dropping surprises on what might possibly be the least predictable album ever made.

From here Plastic Beach simply flies. Rhinestone Eyes (brilliant) is all 80s synths and M.I.A. skipping chants, first single Stylo (also brilliant) manages to merge Bobby Womack’s soulful croon and Mos Def’s raps into something resembling a Gary Numan or Grace Jones track from 1983, and Superfast Jellyfish (particularly brilliant) finds Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys delivering an OutKast-meets-The Rentals elastic pop bouncer in keeping with his colourful cartoon surroundings, right down to the trumpets that sound like a sad clown at the end.

The celebrity guests all step up to the raised bar. Lou Reed’s fragile turn on Some Kind of Nature is the kind of New York piano charmer he does best, and Mark E. Smith is a spectral, menacing presence on Glitter Freeze. But it’s when Albarn takes centre stage that Plastic Beach really thrills: Empire Ants is a trickling ballad to rank alongside Blur’s best, and On Melancholy Hill is a hazy pop gem with the sugary 80s sparkle of Strawberry Switchblade or early Lightning Seeds.

The scope and depth of Plastic Beach is staggering. For anyone frustrated that Blur never quite managed their White Album, look no further.

 

The vinyl for this album took quite a while to arrive while the record company decided best how to fleeceits customers. Like all EMI vinyl its a premium price but delivers a fairly good package. For Gorillaz , of course, the visuals are as important as the aurals, so this is a gatefold sleeve with picture inners, all filled with the wonderful graphics by Jamie Hewlett. Good heavy vinyl with decent sonics and a flat quiet pressing. However at this price I would have liked a CD/DVD thrown in or at least downloads. You will have to source your digital files of this in an alternate manner.

Okkervil River – The stand ins

Will Sheff, lead singer with Okkervil Rivers has, at various times, been a music journalist. With this in mind you feel sure that he’d be able to deal with the statement that sometimes his songs on this, the Austin band’s fifth full-length album, can be a little too honest and a touch too clever for their own good.

The Stand Ins is supposedly the sister to the previous album, The Stage Names. The album’s first half is frankly disappointing compared to its more accessible predecessor – the songs words not being matched by arrangements startling or distinctive enough – a bit too much acoustic-driven indie sludge. But, by the second half the chemistry starts to fizz and Sheff’s clever wordplay finally gets the setting it deserves, with the closing tex mex drift of the marvellously-titled Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979 really saving the day, using mariachi horns and pedal steel to approximate a kind of downer Calexico.

Most of The Stand Ins seems almost too keen to leave you speechless by the use of autobiographical material. The songs characters are all depicted so as to make it obvious to the subjects who they are: the mistreated ex in Pop Lie, the mentor/artist in Singer Songwriter, another ex in Calling And Not Calling My Ex. And the musicologist/geek side to Sheff is aired on the aforementioned Bruce Wayne campbell… (being about failed glam legend, Jobriath). Meanwhile, On Tour With Zykos comes from the angle of a creative female, frustated that she sidesteps her own writing abilities to smoke a bowl and watch TV after sleeping with an un-named gigging musician.

Ultimately, while awkward, this is still good stuff. And if Sheff’s other dayjob, Shearwater, represents his more widescreen bent, drawing in elements of Talk Talk among many others, The Stand Ins still finds space for three drifting instrumentals between tracks (from which the album takes its name), the only downside being that they leave you wanting more. Regular listeners will certainly lap this up.

 

Record is a fairly good standard pressing. Sound is a bit compressed and wall of soundish but not ear bleeding. Minimal enough packaging. Insert but no picture sleeve or gatefold.

Beach House – Teen Dream

Beach House singer Victoria Legrand must be bored rigid with reviewers continually mentioning that her music sounds like the ethereal lovechild of gauzy indie forebears Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star. Granted, reiterating the platitude won’t help, but consider this a valediction; a way of drawing a line in the sand outside the Beach House of old, perhaps. For this, the third album from the Baltimore-based duo – singer/keyboardist Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally – proffers a bold evolution in sound and compositional ambition that renders comparison with those touchstones of yore immaterial.

Indeed, Teen Dream almost entirely eschews the junkshop drum machine-meets-indie chanteuse fragility of the duo’s eponymous 2006 debut and its even drowsier follow-up, Devotion, from 2008, in favour of vigorous, hymnal pop essays that gleam like polished chrome. The upgrade manifests as soon as Legrand opens her mouth to sing. She’s either been on the French fags and absinthe, or simply had a touch of the rheum when the vocals were recorded (as was the entire album), in an isolated, upstate New York church. Her new-found Marianne Faithfull rasp is as unexpected as it is compelling, the rawer tones lending these ten songs, of often rather opaque meaning, a smouldering, hungover sensuousness that remains intimate, even as the music swells to grand dimensions.

For all that, it’s Alex Scally’s plangent electric guitar figures that first impress. Opener Zebra slaloms to life on a loping, vertiginous riff that keeps sliding sideways when you think you know where it’s going. Over it, Legrand’s vocals ooze like molasses before rising imperiously to deliver a swooning chorus hook-line, about the titular “black and white horse”, that Bat for Lashes would kill for. Norway proffers more glinting guitars, woozy keyboards and soaring melodies – Legrand’s descants summoning the same numinous American Gothic mystery beloved of Fleet Foxes – while redemptive closer Take Care begins with harpsichord filigrees and puttering drum boxes before burgeoning into a delirious, see-sawing anthem to human companionship.

The most unmistakeable sound on Teen Dream is that of a band truly finding its own voice. In so doing, they may just have minted the new decade’s first essential album.

 

Teen dreams comes on typical sub pop vinyl. Its not heavy but its flat and very quiet and sounds great. The sleeve is minimal design in a gatefold sleeve with an insert and a DVD!!

Kate Bush – The Sensual World

The Sensual World is unmistakeably of the eighties, but thankfully, due to the inventiveness and sophistication of the sound, it’s aged a thousand times better than either shell suits or Bros. Kate Bush’s ethereal, unmistakeable voice equally enchants and divides audiences, but its uniqueness, and the daunting ambition of her songs, set her apart from any of her contemporaries from her 40-year recording career.

Released in 1989, The Sensual World was Bush’s sixth studio album, and the follow-up to the successful Hounds Of Love. Emotionally raw and lyrically inventive, there is a lushness to the sound, with layer piled upon layer sweeping you along in the complexity of the sound. Bush captures a broad range of sounds here, from David Gilmour’s impressive guitar chops on “Love And Anger”, to the presence of Bulgarian vocal ensemble Trio Bulgarka on “Deeper Understanding”, “Never Be Mine”, and “Rocket’s Tail”.

“Reaching Out” is a beautiful creation, exploring all the different meanings that can be shown in that one action, with the vocal ranging from whispery to the kind of epic wailing that only Bush could manage to keep on the right side of hysterical. “Heads We’re Dancing”, which sounds the most 80s of anything here (think electronic power drum beats and synthy-guitars) is a complete contrast, telling the tale of a woman dancing all night with a stranger who turns out to be Hitler.

“Deeper Understanding” combines a choir-heavy chorus, with a lovely, layered percussion sound with echoes of tribal rhythms. It also has a spooky prescience too it as Bush makes references to lonely people finding solace in their computers. And then in another contrast of style, “Rocket’s Tail” manages to combine brilliantly what should have been a car crash of eastern musical influences with raging guitar solos. What should be a clash of sounds is instead one of the best things here.

Somehow, despite the over-the-top feel to most of her work here, Bush managed to create an album on the right side of self-indulgence. As with most of her work, the thrill is in having no idea what the next song will bring.

 

This reissue presents the record on pristine 180grm vinyl with wonderful quiet backgrounds and a near perfect pressing, allowing the music to really shine through. Hoffmans mastering is excellent and as always presents as natural a renedition as you could expect from an album produced in the 80s. Lovely gatefold sleeve with lyrics inside.

 

Highly recommended.