The Magnetic Fields
Well, the title certainly is truth in advertising. Stephin Merritt goes all The Jesus and Mary Chain here, but like those legendary ’80s feedback mavens, this album has no shortage of songs beneath all the fuzz. You have to understand that I adored the early The Jesus and Mary Chain (their music from the ’90s forward is a much dodgier proposition), as well as the like-minded “shoe-gazer” bands they inspired.
So, having an album by an artist whom I admire for quite different reasons—Merritt writes terrific, tuneful songs, and pulls no punches, but has stayed in a less noisy patch of turf—and mixing it with another sound I love is reason for ecstasy. Now, add in Merritt’s always wry and spot-on observations, which can rival Elvis Costello is terms of bile (check out “California Girls” for an example of this).
Other examples? Well, the driving pulse of “Please Stop Dancing”; the heavy feedback of the lumbering “Mr. Mistletoe”; or the heavy-footed pop of “The Nun’s Litany.” No, you will have to excuse me—I’m off to make a mix tape of this and the best of Psychocandy, with a bit of My Bloody Valentine thrown in for good measure.
Minnesota’s favorite expat songwriter returns to the fold with this follow-up to Body of Song. Like that album, Bob Mould does most of the playing himself—apart from contributions from Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and cellist Amy Domingues—and like all his music dating back to the heyday of Hüsker Dü, the songs sear deep into his heart and mind.
With a career that spans nearly three decades, Mould’s music comes in a number of distinct flavors: the intense, distortion-drenched pop of Hüsker Dü and Sugar; the introspective, moody acoustic pieces on Workbook; and even the odd electronic meanderings of Modulate.
On District Line, Mould plays with the different styles, though focusing most of his attention (thankfully) on the first two. What you get is a strong set of songs that could have been pulled from any era of his career (the closing track, “Walls in Time,” actually dates from the Workbook era).
It does take a few listens for the album’s strengths to come through, so District Line is definitely a “grower.” On the surface, the songs don’t have the instant catchiness of the best Sugar tunes, but they’ll get under your skin after a few spins. And then, Mould’s signature honesty—now tempered with a dollop of maturity—comes through, making District Line one of the artist’s strongest albums in many years.
The covers album is an often-misunderstood creature. Sure, plenty of examples exist of artists making a play for some easy recognition through stunt recordings or a chance to reinvent their careers (Rod Stewart, I am looking at you), but it also is a way for a performer to look back at influences, and explore what defined his or her style.
Cat Power—led by singular talent Chan Marshall—goes the later route on her second covers collection, Jukebox. OK, it isn’t a pure covers collection—two originals here, one a reworked version of an older tune, another completely fresh—but it fits the mold more than adequately.
Marshall says Jukebox is a tribute to the great vocalists who have influenced her over the years, but she also puts a signature stamp on the songs.
The album starts with a downbeat reading of “New York, New York,” which feels much more a song of desperation than the celebration most singers pull out of the tune. The covers feature a mix of country, soul, and folk tunes, from Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ (Wo)man” to James Brown to Joni Mitchell.
Jukebox’s moody arrangements only help to focus attention on Marshall’s strong and unique voice, which does what a covers album should do—make each of these songs live in a way they never have before.
Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that flamboyant and decidedly “out” performer Rufus Wainwright would tackle the music of Judy Garland. This two-disc live set finds him re-creating her legendary 1961 concert at the same venue where she performed it. He brings along a number of special guests, including sister Martha and mother Kate McGarrigle, along with an orchestra, but the focus is truly on the singer.
Wainwright does a fine job channeling his inner Garland throughout, though he seems to have an easier handle on the moodier torch songs than the more spry musical theater staples (such as “That’s Entertainment” or “The Trolley Song”). This probably has as much to do with Wainwright than the songs. He always has been better at smoldering emotion and a wan sadness—being cheerful in music just doesn’t seem to be part of his musical equation.
In the end, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall is exactly that: a loving tribute to an iconic artist who has inspired generations of performers. In his own way, Wainwright keeps the fabulous reign alive.