The Magnetic Fields
The Charm of the Highway Strip
The man behind both of these projects is Stephin Merritt, whose unique pairings of obvious scenarios and basic instrumentation border on pop genius. But although he claims ABBA and classic Top 40 as his primary influences, his music isn't blatantly marketable; you've got to work a bit to fully appreciate it. The fourth album by Magnetic Fields, which features Merritt and Sam Davol, is a case in point--a seductive piece of melancholia whose ten cuts are devoted in one way or another to the not-all-that-commercial theme of transportation. Charm is no rock-star-on-tour whinefest, though. Rather, it's a pensive reflection on the transience of life and the impermanence of love. Over and over again, men leave--and they don't take the hearts they've broken with them. Or, as Merritt sings in "Sunset City," "I don't care what people say/Life is too short to hang around...and I won't miss you/And you won't cry." These are sad lines, and Merritt's deep, somnambulant voice adds as much to their depth as the subtle keyboards, kindergarten percussion and random cellos that underscore the words. These effects reach their pinnacle on "Born on a Train," a tune about unkept promises, ghost roads and the walking dead in which Merritt seems to be channeling Ian Curtis. By comparison, Wasps' Nests is somewhat scattershot: It's a collection of songs written and played by Merritt but sung by an indie-rock who's who. Still, the tracks are full of clever, sardonic phrases and androgyny (Merritt refers to both men and women as "guys"). Moreover, Merritt gives his guest vocalists great words to croon: On "Falling out of Love (With You)," for instance, Luna's Dean Wareham intones, "Every kiss means less and less...you just bore me more and more...every hour kills a flower." Elsewhere, Anna Domino soars on "Here in My Heart," the disc's most upbeat tune, while Helium's Mary Timony comes across like a Primitives clone throughout "All Dressed Up in Dreams." The material on both CDs is consisently impressive, and while it may not bring Merritt to the attention of a wider audience, he's certainly talented enough to deserve one.--Susan Dunlap
Black Snake Diamond Role, Groovy Deco, I Often Dream of Trains, Fegmania!, Gotta Let This Hen Out!, Element of Light, Invisible Hitchcock, Eye, You and Oblivion
Kevin Hunter, the sharp-tongued frontman for the defunct band Wire Train, once espied Robyn Hitchcock in a drugstore diligently studying Hallmark cards. After greeting Hitchcock, Hunter asked the slippery Brit what he was doing. "Looking for song ideas," Hitchcock replied--and no doubt he was telling the truth. Hitchcock at his best is like a psychedelic meat grinder: Trite blabber entering his ears flies out of his mouth as lurid, obscene, original composition. He certainly has an acute sense of humor, but a danger exists in assessing his music as comedy; to fully appreciate it, a listener must resist pigeonholing Hitchcock's art as simply arch. Fact is, most of his songs are more poignant and witty than downright funny. These nine albums, recorded over the course of a decade and just reissued by Rhino, are proof of that. Whether he's involved in a solo project or working with his ensemble, the Egyptians, he displays wonderful breadth and sincere depth. I Often Dream of Trains, a tour de force featuring the cross-dressing mantra "Uncorrected Personality Traits" and the delicate, sublime "Cathedral," is a logical departure point for those unfamiliar with Hitchcock's imagery--its relatively high degree of calm should help novices grapple with his notorious aesthetic. From there, head to Black Snake Diamond Role, another early, spare, luminous outing that should prepare the lucky among you to venture to the furthest reaches of Hitchcock's imagined landscape--the pop melodicism of his middle period, the experimentation of his most recent releases and the pure invention of Train and Snake. Considering the commercial success of such comparatively bland acts as Live, Pearl Jam and the Cranberries, Hitchcock may not have been as influential as some of his supporters claim. But the inspiration he's provided for innovative artists such as R.E.M., Guided by Voices and Liz Phair is here for the hearing. And for the record, that's plenty.--Jason Horwitch
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