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CD Review: Stephin Merritt – Showtunes

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The curiously gifted songwriter Stephin Merritt is best known as the guiding force behind several acclaimed indie-pop groups — most notably The Magnetic Fields, who amazed, delighted, and sort of overwhelmed us all with the three-CD collection 69 Love Songs (and then followed up with the underwhelming album i.) Over the past few years, Mr. Merritt has also written songs for three music theater productions by Chen Shi-Zheng, and Showtunes is jam-packed with 26 of them.

These tunes encompass everything you love (or perhaps don’t?) about Stephin’s songwriting — they are clever and witty, compact and concise, tuneful and cloying… and a bit precious at times. There’s one major problem however — Stephin isn’t singing any of them.

Instead, the Showtunes are (appropriately, I guess) performed by vocalists and choruses from “the original casts” in a mannered, over-enunciated, Broadway-esque style that sounds more like Gilbert & Sullivan than The Magnetic Fields. And sadly, I couldn’t stand it.

Maybe listeners more enamored of musical theater than I am would not be as distracted by this (I can’t stomach Cole Porter songs sung this way either). Besides, the arrangements are fantastic, using unconventional ensembles that convincingly blend Asian instruments with lute, autoharp, accordian, marimba, and steel drums – thankfully without the electronic clutter that sometimes intrudes upon Magnetic Fields productions. (Happily, a few instrumental selections are sprinkled throughout the CD.)

But unfortunately, all I could think about while listening to Showtunes was how much better these songs would sound if they were sung by Merritt’s soulful, resonant, unpretentious baritone voice instead. And I suspect that many of his other fans will feel the same way, hoping as I do that Stephin has worked through this musical theater phase once and for all.

In the future, if he combines the formidable songwriting and orchestration skills heard on Showtunes with the sincere and direct vocal performances that graced so many of the 69 Love Songs, I expect to be amazed and delighted by Stehpin Merritt again and again.

Meanwhile, be forewarned: The Magnetic Fields meets The Mikado may not be your cup of Oolong tea.

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