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the magnetic fields - Realism
Stephin Merritt returns a very different record from 2008's Distortion, occupying a more folksy, lighthearted feel compared with the previous album's Jesus And Mary Chain styled production, which had reportedly been recorded "in the stairwells and rooms of a New York City apartment building". Realism was recorded under the comparatively conventional circumstances permitted by a Californian recording studio, although the band's set up remains resolutely left-of-field: there's not a single drum kit to be heard here, and more rough-and-ready percussion methods were opted for, from tablas to the sound of falling leaves. There's something intrinsically very baroque about the instrumentation and arrangements on this album, which again, feels like a very conscious departure from the instant pop gratification of Distortion, but there's an undoubtedly magical feel to tracks like 'I Don't Know What To Say', whose wryly dark subject matter is glossed over beautifully by its childlike, Beach Boys influenced melodies - something followed up on by the picnic-folk archness of 'The Dolls' Tea Party. Far from being a one-man show, Realism is greatly aided by contributions from the likes of multi-instrumentalist and singer Claudia Gonson, plus Daniel 'Lemony Snicket' Handler (who plays accordion and sings) and John Woo (not the Hong Kong action movie legend, it should be noted) who plays several of the assorted string instruments that come to define the album's sound, including cuatro, sitar and banjo. This album cleverly substitutes the immediacy and simplicity of Distortion in favour of bewitchingly ornate construction, and counterbalances any potential for kitschness with Merritt's typically scathing wit (one of the earliest lines on the album is: "I want you crawling back to me down on your knees, yeah/Like an apendectomy sans anaesthesia"). Said to be chiefly influenced by the chamber-folk of Judy Collins, Realism is a thing of great pop craftsmanship, growing increasingly compelling and impressive with every listen.