Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The 6ths: Hyacinths and Thistles (2000)



Whereas the 6ths' debut album Wasps' Nests defied explanation and convenient pigeonholing, being a series of songs as instantaneous in appeal as they were obscure in origin, its sole followup Hyacinths and Thistles requires a setup. Released only a year after Stephin Merritt's magnum opus 69 Love Songs under the Magnetic Fields rubric, it feels like a low-key collection of potential leftovers from that project. Only Merritt probably knows if that's the case, but most of the songs could have fit comfortably as minor entries in 69 with its smart, mannered use of guest vocalists. It's worth approaching, then, as a sort of Magnetic Fields b-sides comp, only with no Merritt-sung tracks. That comparison ends up meaning more than its association with the 6ths. Wasps' Nests felt like a large-scale undertaking, and an important one to Merritt, in every sense -- its major label backing down to the caliber of its guests. The feeling of a toning down on this far more modest release is unmistakable.

That's not to say Merritt isn't up to his usual brilliant business here. Who could argue with the sheer spectacle of American icon Odetta singing a Merritt auto-standard called "Waltzing Me All the Way Home," or synthpop celebrities Gary Numan and Marc Almond nailing the bleeding mechanical emotion that always cuts to the core in the Merritt canon, or Katherine Whalen (Squirrel Nut Zippers) given at last a song worthy of her abilities, the charming and strange "You You You You You?" But inevitably, nothing here adds up to the emotional heights of 69 Love Songs, the ample cream of that particular enormous songwriting crop having already been exploited. (The Magnetic Fields wouldn't release another album for four years after this.)

Still, a few moments stand out as unique, some of them sublime. Bob Mould is such an unlikely fit for Merritt's songwriting stylistics that it's a joy simply to hear them collaborating, on "He Didn't." Cibbo Matto's Miho Hatori gives the artful gift of a lifetime with her almost unbearably sweet reading of "Lindy-Lou," and the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon is irresistible on the achingly brief "The Dead Only Quickly." And there are the traditional '90s Magnetic Fields soundscapes, halfway between Cole Porter and Vince Clarke: "Give Me Back My Dreams," "Just Like a Movie Star," and "As You Turn to Go" feel almost unnaturally divorced from Merritt's more famous outlet. But not everything is well-advised. The record's sixty-minute runtime is enticing until you realize nearly half of it is closing track "Oahu," an agreeably minimal pop song that descends rapidly into a bare, simplistic keyboard line repeated over and over and over and over again, ever slower and more plodding, until it unceremoniously stops (or, more likely, until the listener shuts it off).

All Stephin Merritt's projects are worth consideration, and this is no exception; no Magnetic Fields collection is complete without it, and the fan of Get Lost and 69 Love Songs will find many pieces here to win their heart and add to the tremendous canon. Take it as a no-nonsense collection of fine melodies and rhymes from a first-rate songwriter, nothing more or less. Only when compared to Wasps' Nests does it fall short, which says more about the brilliance of that album than the inadequacy of this one.

Wasps' Nests (1995)

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