All Ears

All Ears

By John DeFore

Not-so macho

The most memorable melodies of the month may be Magnetic Fields'. Their cutely titled i (Nonesuch) came out in May, but it's a slow-burner that may take a few weeks to wind its way into your cortex. That's not to say that the perfection of MF main-man Stephin Merritt's songs isn't instantly apparent: his fatalistic wit gleams in the 14 precision-balanced tunes here, the names of which all of which begin with "I." (How's this for balance: The first half are all "I" as in first-person singular, the second half leads with I words like "if" and "in.")

Merritt works hard to make his singing sound lamer than it is - maybe he aims to draw attention to the words themselves, but his strained delivery also nudges imperfectly-voiced listeners to hear his words as their own. As he airs his doubts about romance and, well, romance, we wish we were as witty. Or as unconcerned with propriety and conventional morality; Merritt's the David Sedaris of pop music. Which leads to another observation: This is the most overtly homosexual batch of songs the Magnetic Fields have recorded, a sardonic suite that (especially in the techno-epic opening of "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend") recalls that late-'80s moment when many of us became unafraid to admit that the gay guy in class was a whole lot hipper than we were, or at least heard the cool new music months before we did.

That nostalgic mood is continued by the latest from The Aluminum Group, Morehappyness (Wishing Tree). Again, for one reason or another, songwriters Frank and John Navin seem to get more comfortable with writing songs whose protagonists are clearly gay. (Which is not to imply they were ever uncomfortable - they just seem to be doing it more.) From the allusive song title "Mister Butterfly" to lyrics like "your little girlie has found his way through colored town," this is electroacoustic pop that politely asks the homophobes to leave the room before getting around to the sweaty syntholust of "W/O The Erte."

This is all a reminder of a time when even pop stars who flaunted the number of women they slept with were happy to look like they lived in Chelsea. Check out the cover of the recent reissue of Duran Duran's Arena (EMI) if you're not old enough to remember. The live performances on the record may be evidence that the '80s were a decade for bands that were brightest behind studio walls, but it's a nice appetizer for the Duranski reunion that's right around the corner, featuring the original boys for the first time in years.

A more thrilling reissue is This is the Sea (EMI) by The Waterboys. It's a double-discer, with the second platter full of bounty from live tracks to covers, expanded studio takes on familiar tunes, and songs that haven't appeared on disc before. Few would mistake Waterboy Mike Scott for one of his androgynous contemporaries, but the raw emotion and literate spiritualism of his songwriting certainly was a long way from the straightforward swagger of mainstream rock. Scott was (like his musical forebear Van Morrison) never afraid to reach for divine in his love songs, and the examples here are full of transcendent moments, from the title track to "The Whole of the Moon" and "Don't Bang the Drum."

Most musicians today are terrified of anything but the most conventional religious overtones in their music. Then there's the Polyphonic Spree, a group so unconventional they don't mind looking like a hippie Jesus cult. Following up on the worldwide cult phenomenon of their debut, the sophomore Together We're Heavy (Hollywood Records) arrives on July 13 - quick advance listening suggests it may do a better job than its predecessor of convincing listeners that the group is more than a weirdly ecstatic live show. There are real songs here, epic and orchestral but clearly pop music. It isn't for everyone, but it doesn't sound like anyone else out there. •

By John DeFore


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