Conceived as a contrasting bookend to the aptly titled "Distortion" (2008), the ninth album from absurdly prolific singer, songwriter and stylistic chameleon Stephin Merritt trades its predecessor's walls of guitar noise for tinkling bells, plucked banjo, wheezing accordion and bleating tuba for its auteur's version of '60s folk-rock. The New York artist has said he was aiming for Judy Collins, but with his baritone voice and fondness for baroque filigree, he actually comes closer to mellow Jethro Tull.
This isn't a new trend on the current indie-rock scene--witness the Decemberists--and though his barbed lyrical wit produces more than a few gems ("I no longer drink enough to think you're witty," he sings in the opening track, "You think you can simply press rewind, you must be out of your mind"), it's not a sound that really suits him. Several tracks miss the homey, rootsy vibe or stripped-down intimacy that seems to have been the goal, instead achieving a prissy, fussy tweeness--as the titles might indicate, "The Doll's Tea Party," "We Are Having A Hootenanny" and "The Dada Polka" are especially annoying.
Though plenty of critics continue to hail the Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs" (1999) as a masterpiece, that epic triple album easily could have been cut in half, and Merritt always has shared similar problems with fellow home recording maven Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices: a chronic inability to edit himself, and a reluctance or unwillingness to focus on his strengths at the expense of genre experiments that just fall flat. Excepting a few tunes spotlighting the gorgeous vocals of Claudia Gonson, "Realism" is one of those failures.
The queen of "quiet storm" R&B from the mid-'80s through the early '90s, Nigerian-born, British-raised Helen Folasade Adu has been missing from the pop world for nearly a decade, since the release of her fifth album "Lovers Rock" in late 2000. Sade--which, like PJ Harvey, has always been the name of the singer as well as her band--seemed to have said everything she wanted to say, varying the formula of intimate, sultry vocals and exquisitely recorded but minimally arranged instrumentation very little on signature hits such as "Smooth Operator," "Hang on to Your Love" and "The Sweetest Taboo," but nonetheless selling 17 million albums in the U.S. alone.
A staple in the then-new CD players of Reagan-era yuppies, some detractors branded the former fashion designer with epitomizing that era's sleek, superficial and materialist values. But there always were many facets to the diamond life Sade sang about, with a bottomless reservoir of soul obvious to anyone who really listened to her work instead of treating it as mere background music. So it will come as no surprise to those fans that Sade is exploring a much darker vibe on her long-awaited new disc.
As the title might indicate, the theme of love as a battlefield dominates these 10 tracks, and Sade certainly has earned her stripes: During her Greta Garbo-like exile, she endured the dissolution of a marriage in Spain and another relationship in Jamaica that produced a daughter before finding true love with a former Royal Marine in the English countryside. But like Mary J. Blige, she has emerged as an optimist, though one whose eyes are wide open. "There's no way I can find peace and the silence won't cease," she coos in the lovely "Morning Bird," though over a martial beat in the title track, she adds, "I've lost the use of my heart, but I'm still alive."
While the song "Soldier of Love" has a harder, angrier edge than anything Sade has recorded in the past, and her voice has become a little deeper and huskier at age 51, most of the other tracks settle into that familiar late-night groove as the singer reunites with her longtime band mates, including key player Stuart "Cottonbelly" Matthewman, who spent some of his long vacation working with another neo-soul great, Maxwell. Sony is banking on this album to duplicate the sales success of Susan Boyle, believing it's tapped a new market for "adult" (some would say "senior citizen") sounds. But don't let that stop you from enjoying these sophisticated and soulful grooves: Sade may not be giving us anything radically new, but it's a pleasure just to have her back doing what she's always done so well.