The second CD I bought this year was the album Hyacinths And Thistles (and say that three times fast!) by The 6ths (another name deliberately chosen because it is difficult to pronounce). The 6ths is a side project masterminded by Stephen Merritt, who is better known as the mastermind behind the Magnetic Fields. I spent $9.59 on this CD, so I am still on track for getting all 52 CDs for under $10 each.
Merritt is an incredibly gifted lyricist, not in the raw poetic way that Bob Dylan or Nick Cave are, nor as a painter of characters and scenes such as Tom Waits. Rather, he's of the old school, strongly influenced by Cole Porter's gleefully witty style. Merritt's strengths are in rhyme and a clever phrase. He can be deeply sentimental:
I haven't seen you in ages
But it's not as bleak as it seems
We still dance on whirling stages
In my Busby Berkeley dreams
The tears have stained all the pages
Of my True Romance magazines
We still dance in my outrageously beautiful
Busby Berkeley dreams
--- "Busby Berkeley Dreams"
He can be so goofy, it's clever:
Acoustic guitar, if you think I play hard
Well you could have belonged to Steve Earle
Or Charo, or GWAR
I could sell you tomorrow
So bring me back my girl
--- "Acoustic Guitar"
He can be mocking:
I could listen to all my friends and go out again and pretend it's enough
Or I could make a career of being blue
I could dress in black and read Camus,
Smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth like I was 17
That would be a scream
But I don't want to get over you
---"I Don't Want To get Over You"
And I could quote a dozen more favorite examples. "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure," perhaps my all time favorite Magnetic Fields song, has it all --- wonderfully inventive rhyme, a twist of black humor, and a premise that requires a bit of knowledge about 19th century linguists. That's my kind of song!
Anyway, enough gushing about the Magnetic Fields. Merritt often uses other vocalists, but for The 6ths he uses nothing but guests. Hyacinths features Bob Mould (of Husker Du), Sarah Cracknell (of Saint Etienne), Katharine Whalen (the Squirrel Nut Zippers' homegrown Billie Holliday reincarnation) and Neil Hannon (he of the divine, pop-operatic [poperatic?] voice and of the Divine Comedy), among others.
Hannon's brief turn, "The Dead Only Quickly," is a favorite of mine off this disc, concluding with the cheery, "It would be swell / To see some folk burn in hell." Whalen's "You You You You You" is also terrific, a sweet and straightforward love song (unlike a lot of Merritt's oeuvre, which often looks at love through the bleak lenses of breakups, disaffection or unrequitedness).
The 6ths' use of varied vocalists fits well with Merritt's tremendous output and apparent compulsion to dabble in every single musical style known to man. A lot of critics, while appreciative of Merritt's talents, say that Hyacinths sounds like a bunch of songs thrown together with no cohesion, and not an album as such. Well, first, I disagree, because since Merritt wrote every song, they all come from the same creative wellspring, and visit the same recurring themes in all of Merritt's work. And second, even if that were true, I wouldn't mind. A great song is a great song; not every album has to work equally well as a compendium and a gestalt. I'll take a collection of unrelated songs, even if they span a lengthy period of time, by a great artist (Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles) over 99% of the studied and superficial "theme" albums out there.
So, anyway, The 6ths. Yeah. good stuff.