20 Good Vibrations
The Beach Boys
Stephin Merritt's list of influences is rooted in the most classic and cliched pop music--names like Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and assorted other '60s producer-composers for whom sound equalled content. They were men who created records for which lyrics were secondary, overshadowed and overrun by the lush shag carpet of sounds that dominated the era. It was music in which all the instruments blended and blurred into one organic creation, guitars sounding like organs sounding like vocals till it was impossible to separate any individual or instrument.
Songs like the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" or "Falling Out of Love (With You)" from Merritt's new "band" The 6ths evoke their emotion not just with deceptively dark words or butterflies-in-stomach music but in the delirious combination of both elements--heartbreak served up inside a piece of sweet chocolate, sadness betrayed by a peppy beat. The line connecting Brian Wilson's work with the Beach Boys to Stephin Merritt's with The 6ths (and, prior to that, the Magnetic Fields) is very short indeed, and very sharp.
Though Wasps' Nests features 14 other singers along with Merritt--including Helium's Mary Timony, Luna's Dean Wareham, Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley, Heavenly's Amelia Fletcher, and ex-Let's Active frontman Mitch Easter--it's a complete piece throughout (unlike Mike Watt's recent Ball-Hog or Tugboat, another record featuring a rotating lineup of alternastars). Despite the fact there are 15 different singers of varying nationalities and accents (from American to British to Japanese and so on), Merritt somehow makes them sound almost identical, a singular entity instead of so many disparate voices.
Like Beach Boy Wilson, whose massive production often hid the Boys' far-overrated vocals behind brilliant and beautiful anonymity, Merritt distorts the singer and deceives the listener. It's the rock-candy version of pop music, so much to ingest at one time, and it adheres to the oldest tenet of pop music--that the song is the thing, to be appreciated and adored independent of who's singing it. And so "You Can't Break a Broken Heart" from Wasps' Nest and "God Only Knows" are both enormous and simple at the same time--blissful, evocative, haunting odes to loves lost and found, and utterly timeless.