Videos by American Songwriter




[Rating: 3.5 stars]

While the cover art is simplistic—with a brown paper bag-colored background—Realism is far from the traditional folk album. For the final disc of the Magnetic Fields “no-synth” trilogy (following 2004’s i, and 2008’s Distortion) songwriter Stephin Merritt was inspired by the variety-folk stylings of Judy Collins records. Merritt mixes it up vocally, singing in different octaves, and instrumentally, with only the cello appearing on all 13 tracks.

In sharp contrast to the Psychocandy-inspired noise-pop of Distortion, the band decided to ban electric instruments on their latest endeavor. And setting limits in some areas encouraged them to explore a wider range of acoustic sounds, from the sitar and tabla, to the harp and tree leaves. Along with the usual suspects—Sam Davol, John Woo and Claudia Gonson—Merritt is again joined by vocalist Shirley Simms, accordionist Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), violinist Ida Pearle, and tuba-player Johny Blood.

Rest assured, Merritt’s acerbic, lovelorn prose accompanies the orchestral, psychedelic folk sounds of Realism. Merritt’s disaffected baritone can be heard on witty opener, “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” while on the achingly beautiful “Always Already Gone,” he laments: “I couldn’t have dreamed you/But I might as well/You leave me with only a story to tell.” On the flip side, the carnival-esque “Seduced and Abandoned” has him drinking a few, and “The Dada Polka,” a danceable, bongo-laden track dating back to 1986, seems to sum up the indie group’s philosophy: “Do Something/Anything a Little Out of Character/It won’t Kill You.”


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