Magnetic Fields

The Wayward Bus/Distant Plastic Trees

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Magnetic Fields' first two albums, released in 1990 and 1992 on tiny indies and all but ignored until the release of this double CD in 1994, are among the most influential records of '90s indie pop. Resolutely unfashionable in the dawning of grunge, with their early-'80s synthesizers and deliberately twee lyrical preoccupations, these albums are directly responsible for dozens, if not hundreds, of less capable imitators. Thing is, they're also the least interesting and most atypical Magnetic Fields albums. Both albums were sung by Susan Anway, whose deliberately deadpan voice sounds like a cross between Tracey Thorn and Fran├žoise Hardy, instead of Stephin Merritt. While Anway's voice has an alluring charm on many tracks and is absolutely perfect for songs like the Phil Spector pastiche "When You Were My Baby" and the classic heartbreaker "100,000 Fireflies," she can't always put across Merritt's signature mix of cynicism and romantic longing. For that matter, these are Merritt's weakest songs both lyrically and melodically, with only flashes of the wit and sophistication that flowered on later Magnetic Fields albums. While there are several gems to be found here, including the hypnotic "You Love to Fail" and the swooning "Suddenly There Is a Tidal Wave," many of the melodies are unmemorable and a few of the lyrics strive for the kind of offhand cleverness that would later become Merritt's trademark. These records are historically important, and entertaining in their way, but they're by far the weakest releases of Merritt's career.

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