Hyacinths & Thistles
Reviewed by Greenbacks Russell
Thursday, November 16 2000, 4:36 PM
When I was a little kid, I had a portable phonograph that played at 78. I'd spin my mom's neglected Stan Kenton and Vaughan Monroe 78s, which were of no interest to me until I played them at the wrong speed. Vaughan Monroe at 33 had a slow, creepy quality that has stayed with me all these years.
I'm reminded of this when listening to Magnetic Fields auteur Stephin Merritt, who sounds like he's singing at the wrong speed. He must realize this, given the number of guest vocalists on Magnetic Fields' records, and his project band The 6ths. Hyacinths & Thistles is the second CD of songs Merritt has written and produced for others to sing. Whereas the first 6ths release Wasps Nests looked to indie royalty (Yo La Tengo, Superchunk, Heavenly, Barbara Manning), this time he tends towards less rock-oriented cult figures. We get a mixture of newbies and old timers: Momus, Odetta, Marc Almond, Gary Numan, forgotten 70s croaky pop singer Melanie, plus a slew of female singers from bands such as Saint Etienne, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mekons, Combustible Edison, and Altered Images.
The results are mixed, but the main drawback of this second 6ths is the same as the first. Merritt's productions force the performer to sing like Merritt and use his phrasing, stripping the guests of much of the personality that makes them worth listening to in the first place. Compounding matters, the bare bones techno pop backdrops, probably intended as minimalist, come off as anemic. A number of the performers are capable of broad emotional sweep, but sound subdued and puny. Sally Timms, Gary Numan, and especially Marc Almond (whose backing track is self-parody) are wasted here. Taking a performer out if his/her usual milieu can achieve unusual and exciting results, but these songs have no emotional or musical range. They stick to one tone--no dynamics, no buildup or descent, always the same genteel mood from start to finish. To bring such a diverse group of vocalists together, only to drape their voices over thin, demo-like soundscapes, is perverse.
Merritt is well-known for his songwriting style. He's virtually alone in the indie rock underground in invoking pre-war role models like Cole Porter and Noel Coward. Given this unique approach, he gets a lot of positive coverage, especially since he displays the kind of intelligence that most literate rock scribes (who end up reviewing a lot of dumb music) can relate to. Because he eschews the usual rock cliches, he is rarely if ever taken to task for his use of older, moldier cliches. I cringed upon listening to "He Didn't" (featuring a pretty Bob Mould vocal) at yet another Merritt lyric about asking someone to dance, smoking a cigarette, and wondering if someone loves them. It's substituting one bland, cliched myth for another.
Merritt can write creative and subversive lyrics (like the Magnetic Fields' track on 69 Love Songs describing a pretty girl in her underwear in one verse, and then a pretty boy in his underwear in the next), but this batch of songs isn't his strongest material. My favorite is "The Dead Only Quickly," an appropriate vehicle for Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, which at a minute in length is the liveliest piece here. Had these guest artists recorded their songs with their own musicians without Merritt's interference, most would have turned out better. Instead, these wispy performances just evaporate.
Hyacynths and Thistles is a Merge Records release