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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Mazarin: A Tall Tale Storyline

A Tall Tale Storyline

I must say that A Tall Tale Storyline is rather a delightful pop record — as intelligent and whimsical as its title. Like its brother in retro-futurist electro-acoustic pop, the Magnetic Fields, Mazarin is also the brainchild of a single man, the unfortunately named Quentin Stoltzfus. This album is only the second fruit of Stoltzfus’ musical efforts; the rest of his time seems to have been spent in Philadelphia on projects such as The Azusa Plane (the presskit labels them “drone improv”; Stoltzfus was the drummer) and the charmingly obscure, impressionistic Therisphere recordings.

Apparently there was a lot of heartache and perfectionism and Kafka-esque burning of manuscripts before Mazarin released its first album, Watch It Happen. Artistic narcissism aside, the work paid off: its leading single, “Wheats”, was picked by England’s NME as the Single of the Week for December 11, 1999. Generally, our man Q.S. seems to have made the most impression in Merry Old England, whose inhabitants are, as a rule, more receptive of sweet, well-crafted pop than us colonials, who tend to set the bar high and the quota low for such indulgences.

With Watch It Happen drummer Sean Byrne and producer Brain McTear on board for songwriting this time around, Tall Tale Storyline bills itself as an album determined to amplify and expand upon its strummy, angular predecessor. The album’s eight-minute opener, “Go Home”, certainly moves these ears painlessly through what might have been monotonous strum, with tone generators and “found” sounds offering both depth and texture. Other songs, however, seem to fall short of their aspirations. For example, “RJF Variation 1”, and “2.22.1”, both tributes to guitar guru John Fahey, do little more than trace an approximation of Fahey’s seminal plucking style before whatever “variations” come to mischief in vagary. It’s like filming some paper cutouts and calling it a tribute to Harry Smith.

Other yawn-fests are the lackluster “Bend”, which is saved only by the sound of crunching leaves underfoot. This deliberately “atmospheric” detail might have impressed me more if it were incorporated into the music itself, rather than offered as ornamentation or flourish. On the other hand, the twang-infused “Limits of Language” treats an old subject with refreshing plainness (“the limits of language have all been found / and I keep riding on till I get it down”) and recalls other, perhaps more heartwrenching Magnetic Fields forays into honky-tonk territory (remember “Fear of Trains”?). Certainly the slide guitars have a metallic edge that saves them from any dust-covered, shit-kicking clichés. And, while Stoltzfus’ tenor has a plaintive air about it, it serves him just as well in less lonesome numbers. The title track is an excellent showcase for this sweet if unremarkable voice, with its stripped down arrangement of hammond organ and acoustic guitar.

This album is unlikely to remain in my memory for long — though it is delightful, it may ultimately be forgettable. However, I was struck by the rhythmic intensity and complexity of a few of the more poppy tracks. Perhaps this quality comes from Stoltzfus’ years as a drummer — though Byrne certainly has the chops to match whatever percussive madness Stoltzfus dreamed up. It isn’t really the sort of thing where the gaps matter — like Mogwai at their best, for example. Instead Mazarin takes a basic strum and turns it seamlessly inside out, like a sort of rhythmic Mobius strip. In this regard the most memorable song on the album is the second track, “Suicide Will Make You Happy”. In addition to the percussive gymnastics described above (including an ingenious bridge), bell flourishes and lovely cello underpinnings make this the album’s most lush arrangement. Add that to the wry lyrics (“don’t have to pretend that suicide will make you happy”), and you’ve got something at least worthy of another Single of the Week.