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Album Review: Stephin Merritt’s “Obscurities”

Posted: November 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Blog, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I have been a fan of nearly everything that Stephin Merritt has put together since the Magnetic Fields’ “69 Love Songs” came out in 1999.  I’ve also grown to really like (if not more) their earlier, lo fi stuff on “Holiday”, “Get Lost”, and “The Charm of the Highway Strip”.  His gloomy work with his Gothic Archies moniker, as well as the guest singers with the 6ths, have also been very enjoyable to me.  Of all the music artists I have enjoyed, I think Merritt’s discography gives me the most satisfaction for any mood.

I think my fandom is mainly because Merritt’s songwriting has the ability to sound cheerful and poppy but has an underlying emotion that may not be as apparent.  There are certainly sad-sounding sad songs and happy-sounding happy songs, but the ones that have a story that goes beyond the tones of the synthesizers, cellos, and ukeleles really draw me in. Even as a scraps on the floor, anything off of “Obscurities” was probably going to win me over.

So it was with great zeal that I purchased the new B-sides/rarities compilation of “Obscurities”.  This collection contains songs from the Magnetic Fields as well as a few of Merritt’s side projects. There’s the usual fare of alternate takes, like the similarly sounding “I Don’t Believe You” and “Take Ecstasy With Me”.  The latter, which is a great favorite of mine, is actually sung by Susan Anway, who sung on some of the Magnetic Fields’ earlier work on “Distant Plastic Trees”.

Other songs that stand out to me are “Yet Another Girl”, (which is was a song from the 6ths and features Stuart Moxham (Young Marble Giants) on vocals) and “Plant White Roses” (a fine country folk tune from the Buffalo Rome side project).  Another nice addition is “You Are Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home”, which is from Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” audiobook.  Essentially, one was unlikely going to hear that tune unless they had that obscure medium, so it’s great to finally have it on a CD.

I will admit that not all of the songs are gold, for “Beach-a-Boop-Boop” sounds a little too plain even with a catchy pop hook throughout.  “Scream (‘Till You Make the Scene)”, for some reason, doesn’t have the collection of sounds and effects that usually make Merritt songs catchy and enjoyable.  Regardless of a few that don’t do much for me, every song sounds like what Merritt has worked on in the past few decades, so fans who want to hear unreleased tunes will certainly find something to enjoy.

Ultimately, given this album’s mish mash of styles and quality, anyone thinking of getting into songs penned by Stephin Merritt should definitely start elsewhere.  Don’t even begin at “69 Love Songs”, for that may be a lot to tackle at once.  Go with “Holiday”, “The Charm of the Highway Strip” or one of his recent releases with the Magnetic Fields.  If you like what you hear, give a listen to “Obscurities”.  For a b-side compilation it stands up rather well on its own.

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