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Thursday, June 17, 2004 11:44 pm

Sound Patrol 6-17-04

Outright confessions, fevered dreams

The Magnetic Fields

On their seventh album (or ninth, if you count 1999's 69 Love Songs as three CDs rather than one), the Magnetic Fields deliver more of the devastatingly clever/cleverly devastating songcraft that's endeared them to overeducated self-loathers the world over. The flagship band of dyspeptic genius Stephin Merritt -- who also helms the Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, and the Gothic Archies -- the Magnetic Fields have kept their devotees waiting four-and-a-half years, wondering how in the name of Holland-Dozier-Holland their idols could possibly top the astonishing 69 Love Songs trilogy.

In terms of quantity, they don't: i is a single disc, comprising 14 songs and clocking in at just over 40 minutes. Like its predecessors, i is organized on the basis of a conceit (both definitions of the word might apply): All of the song titles begin with the ninth letter of the alphabet and appear in alphabetical sequence. Perhaps in acknowledgment of the letter's double duty as the first-person pronoun, Merritt sings lead on all of the tracks, a departure from the multivoiced 69 Love Songs and an invitation to interpret the songs as more personal, if not outright confessional. Whether the compulsive ironist is notably sincere here is a subject for Merritt's mom or boyfriend or therapist, not for his fans and certainly not for his critics, but it's undeniable that i sounds more intimate and direct than previous efforts. Without those characteristic synthetic plinks and plonks, those distancing drones, the arrangements have a warmer, more organic feel, bolstered by Sam Davol's cello, Claudia Gonson's piano, John Woo's guitar, and a host of other "real" instruments such as ukelele, banjo, harpsichord, and drums. The decision to eschew the usual electronic fillips isn't in itself surprising -- 69 Love Songs and the 6ths' Hyacinths and Thistles were studded with tracks that relied solely on acoustic instruments -- but it serves these songs especially well, particularly the gorgeous closer, "It's Only Time." His voice cracking a bit as he struggles in a register somewhat higher than his usual basso profundo, the openly gay Merritt repeats the phrase "Marry me" and doesn't even undercut the mush with one of his famously ingenious rhymes. It's a heartbreaker. Would that George W. Bush and his sanctity-of-marriage minions were listening.

The Places
Call It Sleep

Graced with a fragile, resonant contralto, singer/songwriter Amy Annelle sings with the quiet intensity of a lover whispering in your ear, her lips trembling against your lobe as you drift into a fitful slumber punctured by fever dreams. The aptly titled Call It Sleep, Annelle's second release with the Portland-based collective the Places, is a narcotic, attenuated record, one that caresses you with ardent entreaties and then clobbers you with a terrifyingly offhand remark such as "Take your leave and a switchblade in case you need to cut the throat of any ghost you meet."

A fraying tapestry of vibraphone, creaky violin, brushed drums, woozy piano, and a trumpet that seems to have been kidnapped from a mutant spaghetti Western, Call It Sleep depicts a sinister wasteland where the voices of waking birds "form a warning chorus" and unspecified sickening objects grow arms and legs and, worse still, start thinking. Feedback, found sounds, random blurts of shortwave static, and Annelle's imagist shards converge in a way that's pretty and portentous in equal measure, like a baby with a black eye. The band -- which boasts members of the Decemberists, the Thermals, and Death Cab for Cutie, among other members of the indiescenti -- evokes the deconstructed postrock of the Dirty Three: Just as the songs seem close to disintegrating, they reconstruct themselves somehow, conjuring form and meaning from the fragments of Annelle's beautiful, bewildering visions.

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