The Magnetic Fields
Get Lost is the perfect title for this record, fusing Stephin Merritt's cranky, introverted persona with his trademark use of travel as metaphor for escape from failed affairs. Still the best lyricist in pop (or rock, or whatever you want to call it) today, Merritt is always cruising — in both senses of the word — at beaches and bars and on the autobahn. Keyboard scientists Kraftwerk and their mutant children like Gary Numan frequently reduced desire to science or machinery; when Merritt tries a similar approach, he chooses better metaphors (“Smoke and mirrors/ Special effects,” for example), ones that convey the elusive, delusional aspects of love.
Part Irving Berlin, part Leon Theremin, Merritt has a genius for witty couplets and weird sounds. He falls in love and falls apart an (un)lucky 13 times on Get Lost, but time is the ultimate villain: “Time provides the rope/ But love will tie the slipknot/ And I will be the chair you kick away,” Merritt croons on “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do,” comparing a clock to “a blunt instrument/ crushing the skull” in the same song. On “Love Is Lighter Than Air,” time is an “unforgivable mime” with a “fulsome giggle,” and “blimps of romance” provide a heaven-bound getaway.
Most of his home-studio contemporaries have little real ambition or instrumental skill, but for Merritt, the small-scale form is a reflection of character. Each composition here is an intricate miniature, with bejeweled, tinseled guitar melodies and synths that alternately rise like hot-air balloons and chirp like crickets. (Bandmates Sam Davol, Claudia Gonson, and John Woo provide extra ornamentation.) Appropriately, Get Lost is best heard on headphones, in solitude.
It's tough to stay in love when other humans are so irritating: That's the main problem of a misanthropic romantic, and, in addition to his lyrics, Merritt's low and lonely growl — grumpy but huggable — conveys this message. His singing is more expressive and less world-weary here (especially on the ukelele serenade “With Whom to Dance”), but it's still tied to couplets like “I know all the saddest people/ Most of them are dead now.” Get Lost's moments of true love are mostly fleeting, nighttime glances at new flames or two-dimensional idols: “The moments in your gaze/ Have been turning to days/ In my heart,” Merritt croons to a frozen image during “Don't Look Away.” When he moans that “All the umbrellas in London/ Couldn't stop this rain/ And all the dope in New York/ Couldn't kill this pain,” you can't help but be thankful for Merritt's misery. Nobody mopes it better.
Stephin Merritt solo opens for the Tindersticks Sat, Nov. 18, at Bimbo's 365 Club in S.F.; call 474-0365.
— Johnny Ray Huston
It's easy to look back in Kim Deal's checkered musical past and feel a certain amount of pity mixed in with the admiration: Like our own full-figured Mayor Frank Jordan, she's continually stymied by the company she keeps. After watching her play George Harrison to Black Francis' Lennon/McCartney, Dylan to Tanya Donelly's Donovan, and, in the latest chapter of this ongoing saga, Jagger to sister Kelly's Keith Richards, one wonders if Deal wouldn't be better off existing in a creative bubble, free to pursue her singular muse without the troubling presence of distracting and less worthy collaborators.
With Pacer, the debut from Deal's newest project, the Amps, we can stop wondering; unfortunately, the answer might not be the one we were hoping for. Though she's since filled out the Amps lineup with a stable of fellow Daytonians (Breeders drummer Jim MacPherson among them), Pacer is a work of pure Dealism, recorded solely by the singer/guitarist in a continent-spanning array of studios (which in itself is curious, considering the decidedly — and presumably deliberate — lo-fi murk that pervades the album's production, a probable influence of Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard, who co-wrote Pacer's “I Am Decided” with Deal).
And while the album's 12 tracks bear all the signature characteristics of Deal's earlier work — choppy, agitated rhythms juxtaposed with classic girl-group melodies and a skewed lyrical sensibility that posits Deal somewhere between wide-eyed naif and jaded hag — there's an undeniably half-hewn sketchiness to them, the kind that we've come to expect when phrases like “side project” are thrown around. The album starts off promisingly enough, with the VU-gone-Merseybeat title cut, and retains a fair amount of momentum through the barn dance free-for-all of “Full on Idle,” the sloppy (in all the right ways) jet propulsion of “Empty Glasses,” and the dreamy “Bragging Party.” It would take a team of NASA engineers, though, to get clunkers like the ill-advised space-rock opus “Breaking the Split Screen Barrier” and the supremely stupid and sloppy (in all the wrong ways) “Hoverin' ” off the ground.
Pacer may be the real Deal, but it's also a raw deal by half, and we're allowed to expect more from the woman who brought us “Gigantic.” Let's hope Kelly's methadone treatment takes hold real soon.
— Tim Kenneally
Tha Dogg Pound
“A hustla only hustles for so long and then he's hustled out … / A playa only plays for so long and then he's played out,” Big Pimpin' says. Prophetic words coming from Tha Dogg Pound: As Kurupt, Dat Nigga Daz, Snoop, and friends minstrel their ghetto cartoons once again, it's readily apparent that the g-funk era is played out, too. Ironically, Dogg Food — the main album caught in the election-year battle between the William Bennett/C. Delores Tucker cabal and Time-Warner (which dutifully dumped its profitable 50 percent stake in Death Row's former distributor, Interscope) — is as sophomoric and drained of real political content as any rap release could be. If rap is the “CNN for young black males,” as the adage goes, these Doggs need to cancel their subscriptions to the Playboy Channel.
As usual, it's the 2-Live-Crews of the music biz who end up the poster boyz for the right to free speech. Snoop needs to stop slumming; it's painful to hear him squander his phenomenal voice on trash like the oddly homoerotic daisy chain of “If We All Fuc”; that is, “If you fuck, and if I fuck, and that Nigga Daz fuck, then we all gonna fuck.” The image of mom-like Tucker chasing these potty-mouthed kids with a bar of soap would be hilarious if it didn't signify what a trap the music fell into when Dr. Dre and company's gats-and-booty-based “reality” — ghetto reporting devoid of analysis or vision — grew to chokehold rap discourse. Not only is all rap and hip hop — from Snoop to Nas to the Roots — painted with the same brush by the fickle public eye, but artists routinely define themselves against the gangsta paradigm. You can hear it in the East Coastified gangsterisms of Mobb Deep or Biggie Smalls, or in the studied seriousness of underground hip-hoppers who have to prove that they're not gangstas while remaining “hard” all the same. Even the formerly fun-loving Pharcyde come subdued on their new Lab Cabin California, dropping lines like, “I gotta kick somethin' that means somethin.' ” The problem is they don't, and rappers that do (like Aceyalone) get no play.
Of course, Dogg Food sounds great: Main producer Daz follows Death Row's g-funk template to a T, from the almost fascistic grooves of “Smooth” to the melancholy Grandmaster Flash tribute “New York, New York.” If you want innovation, though, you've come to the wrong kennel. By the way, after many months of delays caused by the Time-Warner brouhaha, the long-awaited Dogg Food just happened to be released in time for Snoop's murder trial. Ain't life a beeyatch.
— Sia Michel