After a decade knocking around in relative anonymity with the indie in-crowd, Stephin Merritt has lately joined the ranks of pop music's Who's Who. The superlatives garnered by his band the Magnetic Fields' one-of-a-kind, three-CD musical revue, 69 Love Songs, have turned him into something of an alternacelebrity. For his witty, poignant dissertation on the love song, Merritt has been proclaimed the best songwriter of his generation and placed in the rarefied company of Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
This admiration for Merritt's formidable songwriting, though, underestimates his skill as a singer -- the tender cynicism and arch sentimentality of the lyrics depend as much on Merritt's nuanced baritone as on the words themselves. Indeed it is his voice that proves the most glaring omission from his vanity project the 6ths, in which he plays impresario to a cast of minor sensations and kitschy has-beens as they recite his lines and impersonate jilted lovers.
The guest vocalists on the second 6ths' effort, Hyacinths and Thistles, lack Merritt's subtle swagger and aplomb, which are required to make what seems overwrought on paper canny and touching in performance.
So Momus and the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon end up sounding like Eurotrash knockoffs of the real thing on their respective tracks, while Marc Almond's star turn on the tiki-room torch song "Volcana!" is too campy to provide the necessary emotional undercurrent. Same goes for the synth-filled, futuristic Gary Numan number, "The Sailor in Love With the Sea," which too blatantly plays off the one-hit wonder's pop-cultural appeal. On the other hand, some collaborations are awkward rather than over the top: Folksinger Odetta proves ill-suited to Merritt's fluttering flights of fancy on "Waltzing Me All the Way Home"; while Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori gets tongue-tied trying to measure up on "Lindy-Lou."
Only a couple of performers manage to make Merritt's love songs their own. A sophisticated romantic herself, Saint Etienne crooner Sarah Cracknell gets her part down pat on "Kissing Things" as she coos sweet nothings ("I've been kissing the bottle, wishing it was you") with listless lust. But only Bob Mould evokes an emotional complexity on a par with Merritt's own. Accompanied by a sparse piano arrangement, his earnest, soulful rendition of "He Didn't" conveys a sense of commitment that lends gravity to sappy lines like, "We'll go down in flames/Of course, but love remains/If you dance with me." Mould's contribution proves that a singer's delivery is just as important as what he sings, an appropriate tribute to Merritt, indeed.
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