CD Roundup: Magnetic Fields, The Men, Burial

Dylan Hester

Artist The Magnetic Fields

Album “Love at the Bottom of the Sea”

Label Merge Records

 

Ten albums in, The Magnetic Fields make a return to the sonic terrain they haven’t visited in over a decade.

 Ever since their 1999 opus “69 Love Songs,” a painfully accurate title for the three disc set, Stephin Merritt and company have moved away from the synth-heavy sound that characterized their earlier ’90s output. They remained affectionately twee and quietly self-deprecating in the 2000s, with standout albums such as 2004’s “I”, on which every song begins with the letter I) and 2008’s “Distortion,” which, appropriately enough, has a feedback-heavy sound reminiscent of  Jesus and Mary Chain.

“Love at the Bottom of the Sea” follows right on the heels of 2010’s “Realism,” but the new album sounds remarkably different. Aesthetically, it’s a return to the synth-poppy aesthetic that characterized their classic ’90s albums.

Surprisingly, there are very few guitars to be heard, but the wide range of sounds (synthesizers and things that sound like synthesizers) continues to fascinate on each listen. The arrangements — goofy and playful as they are — have the charming sophistication one would expect at this point into the band’s career.

The fifteen tracks that make up “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” are over after just 35 minutes, the longest track being just 2:38. These are the quick, witty pop tunes that songwriter Stephin Merritt built a career on. Songs such as “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh,” “Andrew in Drag,” and “Infatuation (With Your Gyration)” are classic Merritt. His lyrics balance off-the-cuff silliness with a sense of earnestness.

By and large, twee pop is the realm of the too-cute-to-skip-school Europeans in skirts and slacks. Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura have built careers on that image of the polite, bookish rock star. But The Magnetic Fields, lovely and sweet as they are, remain the pre-eminently American version of indie pop. The band is not only more willing to goof around with their sound than their European counterparts, but their wit also has more bite. Just listen to Merritt’s quintessential smirk in “God Wants Us to Wait.”

Newer fans may need some time to adjust to the synth-pop sound of “Love at the Bottom of the Sea,” but the songs themselves are still consistently well developed and up to the standards of the rest of the Fields’ catalog. And after ten albums, that consistency is more impressive than ever.

 

 

 

Artist The Men

Album “Open Your Heart”

Label Sacred Bones Records

 

Despite being extremely difficult to Google, New York City quartet The Men reached a respectable level of hype with last year’s “Leave Home.” The eight-song album was incredibly heavy and comparable to the stoner metal of Kyuss, Boris and Queens of the Stone Age, especially on the massive cut “().”

On “Open Your Heart,” the group’s third full-length and second on Sacred Bones, The Men turn away from the brutal edge of their earlier material and move toward a jangly, garage rock sound. It’s still riff-heavy, loud and in your face, but the tunes aren’t as intimidating as they once were. Even with the abrasive post-hardcore vocal work and pummeling pulse of the guitar/drum/bass setup, the music simply feels good. Tracks like “Animal” and “Please Don’t Go Away” are head-nodding, smile-inducing, dopamine-rushing rock ‘n’ roll at its finest.

But that isn’t to imply a lack of innovation. The rambling, warbling instrumental “Country Song” calls to mind Neil Young and Crazy Horse as much as Earth and Mogwai. When it segues into the upbeat, seven-minute “Oscillation,” it’s clear the band has found something special.

The comparisons don’t stop there. It’s easy for critics to point out similarities and cite as many potential influences as possible. But The Men weave all those different sounds into something that sounds like nobody else. It’s been a while since a group has injected so much unique personality into a no-frills, classic take on rock music.

“Open Your Heart” is certainly that but it also sounds impeccably modern. For the timeless qualities of its sound, it isn’t an album that could have been made in any earlier time.

 

 

 

Artist Burial

Album “Kindred” EP

Label Hyperdub Records

 

When he released “Untrue” in 2007, Burial brought the sound of South London boroughs to the world at large. Dubstep had been around for a few years already, but it was rarely heard outside of clubs filled with Red Stripe-sipping bassheads. Since the classic dub-reggae-meets-two-step sound died out in 2010, the word dubstep has become largely associated with the tiresome and robotic sound of American producer Skrillex. But the massive influence of UK dubstep, and Burial in particular, has been slowly seeping into pop trends: The Weeknd (who produced tracks on Drake’s latest), James Blake and even local favorites Poliça’s autotuned moodiness can be heard in
Burial.

“Kindred,” his latest work, is the most intricate work he’s done to date. The three tracks work as suites, punctuated with different movements and codas. His trademark sound is stronger than ever: distorted, melancholic vocal samples thrown on top of a shuffling garage beat.

There are also samples of thunderstorms and lots of crackles for a more theatrical atmosphere. Such dramatic elements could have been a failure, but the gutted bass and drums at the core of Burial’s work keeps it all together. It’s some of his finest and darkest work yet, to be played exclusively at night.

And take note of the warning on Hyperdub’s page: “The skips and cut outs are
intentional.”