The 6ths

Hyacinths and Thistles (Merge)

By all accounts, Magnetic Fields main man Stephin Merritt is indie pop's ultimate renaissance man -- Irving Berlin, Leonard Cohen, and the Human League all rolled into one. Merritt is an old-fashioned songsmith who uses '80s retro synth-pop to bridge the gap between kitchen-table home recordings and the Tin Pan Alley crooning of the '30s and '40s. Last year's three-CD tour de force, 69 Love Songs, showed his mastery over a dazzling range of styles -- cabaret torch songs, disco, blithe parodies of country, punk rock -- and set his name in the firmament of modern-day lyricists.

Over the years, Merritt has continually been fascinated by other people performing his work. Hyacinths and Thistles is the second album by The 6ths, a challenging, often mystifying, project in which Merritt invites various celebrities to sing his songs. The first 6ths record was somewhat of a glorious disaster, featuring an all-star indie rock cast buried under a manic, monochromatically discofied sound mix.

Here, by contrast, Merritt's brilliant wordplay comes through loud and clear, although the choice of guest artists is more varied and eccentric. Indie icons such as Sally Timms (of the Mekons) and Sarah Cracknell (of Saint Etienne) rub elbows with '60s folkies Odetta and Melanie and new wave pioneers Gary Numan and Marc Almond, with mixed results. One can understand why the stagy, ironically melodramatic Merritt would get a kick out of working with Soft Cell singer Almond, although the resulting track ("Volcana!") is unbearably schmaltzy. There are other moments of profound self-indulgence, such as the 28-minute-long "Oahu," which meanders interminably through a spacey synthesizer riff reminiscent of the old-school New Age-y electronic music they used to play in Nature Company stores.


Sample of The 6ths' "As You Turn to Go" (with Momus)

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On the flip side, this disc has its fair share of home runs, including a dreamy mix of "Just Like a Movie Star," featuring one of France's great unknown indie popsters, Dominique A, and "As You Turn to Go" by Scottish avant-provocateur Momus. One surprise highlight is the understated ballad "You You You You You" by Katherine Whalen of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who may be the singer most successful at picking out the poetic inflections and emotional ironies in Merritt's lyrics.

In the old days, the true test of a songsmith was the ability to create "standards" -- songs that anyone could sing and make his own. Here, Cracknell hits pay dirt with her version of "Kissing Things" -- a melancholy love song that has been a concert staple of the Magnetic Fields for years -- proving that Merritt has what it takes to create a great pop classic.

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