January 20, 2002

Stephin Merritt "Eban & Charley"

Enigmatic pop-composer Stephin Merritt has finally released a solo album. Considering how each of his personas have distinct stylistic qualities (Magnetic Fields=pop songs, Future Bible Heroes=new wave pop songs, 6ths=distinct ballads with guest vocalists, Gothic Archies=hopelessly pathetic bubblegum), this soundtrack is a very different record for Mr. Merritt. Eban and Charley represents a radical departure for Stephin, and, personally, it couldn't be more welcome.

If you're looking for a pop record along the lines of 69 Love Songs, forget it. Eban and Charley is very much a soundtrack. The film Eban and Charley is an underground film about an older man's love affair with a young boy; in short, it's a flim that few will probably see. As I have not seen the film, it would be improper to comment on the plot, but judging from the soundtrack, it's an odd, disturbed, and rather depressing affair. Of course, the format does provide Stephin with the opportunity to experiment with different styles, as well as working with instrumentals--something that he's never really done on record before, save for the occasional moment here and there.

Of the album's sixteen songs, only six are fully developed songs. Most are either odd experimental clips or are piano-and-effects based pieces. The opening track, "Mother," is a keyboard composition, very heavy on the atmosphere, that reminds a bit of Harold Budd's collaboration with the Cocteau Twins. In fact, there are quite a few tracks that have a Harold Budd tone to them, as well as touches of Eno. His instrumental version of "Greensleeves" is played on a rattling piano. Done in this ambient style, the song certainly recreates a cold, snowy, harsh English winter. Not easy listening in the least, and certainly not a happy Christmas tune as well. There's another Christmas tune, "O Tannenbaum," which is also played on Piano, is perhaps the angriest, version of this song you'll hear.

Some of these experimental little pieces are rather cute; I'm particularly taken with "Drowned Sailors" and "Tea Party." Other pieces are rather complex, and are simply atonal. Of the actual "songs," all of them are somewhat sad, and, not surprisingly, a lot more cinematic in nature, most especially "Maria Maria Maria." "Some Summer Day," for some odd reason, reminds me of World War I. "Poppyland" and "This Little Ukelele" are perhaps the most reminiscent of Stephin's past work; they're a nice little respite from all of the experimenting going on. "Water Torture" is a fun little exercise in internal rhyme, and "Tiny Flying Player Pianos" is an all-too-brief pop tune.

It's good to see Merritt stepping away from his traditional musical styles to experiment a bit. As an album, Eban and Charley may provide some fans with a difficult listen. It would be unfair to bring any notions of past Stephin Merritt recordings when you first listen to Eban and Charley.In case you ever wondered what would happen if Coil met Abba and Lee Hazelwood, Eban and Charley certainly provides you with a possible scenario.

--Joseph Kyle

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