Album of the Week, October 13: Wasps’ Nests by the 6ths

6thsWaspsStephin Merritt has always had a restless streak. Although his early musical work — based on a cheap synth and homemade four-track recordings — was something like lo-fi Kraftwerk or pre-alt-rock indie New Wave, his lyrical bent and musical passion have more in common with the rich pop textures of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and ABBA. After founding the Magnetic Fields and recording two albums with singer Susan Anway, he took over primary vocal duties himself. The band has slowly grown into a core of five or six musicians, blending the electronic foundations with natural instruments to support Merritt’s mordant wit and pop perfection. The Magnetic Fields also feature a handful of regular vocalists, including Merritt. The bandleader has also recorded under his own name (mostly indie film soundtracks) and with the lo-fi post-disco dance trio Future Bible Heroes and the goth-bubblegum band Gothic Archies. In 1994, Merritt had a set of songs that didn’t quite fit his vision for the Magnetic Fields, so he asked a bunch of friends and acquaintances to lend a hand.

Title Wasps’ Nests
Act The 6ths
Label London Release Date March 21, 1995
Producer Stephin Merritt
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[lead vocalist]
  1. San Diego Zoo [Barbara Manning]
  2. Aging Spinsters [Stephin Merritt]
  3. All Dressed Up In Dreams [Mary Timony]
  4. Falling Out of Love (With You) [Dean Wareham]
  5. Winter In July [Ayako Akashiba]
  6. Pillow Fight [Mitch Easter]
  7. Dream Hat [Mac McCaughan]
  8. Movies In My Head [Georgia Hubley]
  9. In the City In the Rain [Lou Barlow]
  10. Looking For Love (In the Hall of Mirrors)
    [Amelia Fletcher]
  11. Heaven In A Black Leather Jacket [Robert Scott]
  12. Here In My Heart [Anna Domino]
  13. Puerto Rico Way [Mark Robinson]
  14. You Can’t Break A Broken Heart
    [Jeffrey Underhill]
  15. When I’m Out of Town [Chris Knox]
  16. Yet Another Girl [Stuart Moxham]

The result was the 6ths, a non-band centered lo-fi synth, clever production values and Merritt’s lyrics with a panoply of alt-rock talent providing the vocals. Enjoying the pronunciation challenge of the band’s name, Merritt upped the ante with the album title Wasps’ Nests. It includes 15 songs, with the liner notes providing a quick bio of each singer. The album was also released as a box set of vinyl 45s, featuring a 16th track, later included on the Merritt collection Obscurities. Strange though it may seem, the whole project is amazingly cohesive, a testament to the maestro’s singular vision and the stunning array of talent he assembled. On to the songs!

  • San Diego Zoo [Barbara Manning is the guy from the San Francisco Seals and is also Barbara Manning] Manning lends her finest plaintive vocal and SoCal passion to this touching tribute to a love she regrets leaving behind.
  • Aging Spinsters [Stephin Merritt is the guy from the 6ths and The Magnetic Fields] Merritt’s lone 6ths vocal is perfect for this dour warning to beautiful girl not to let her life pass by.
  • All Dressed Up In Dreams [Mary Timony is the guy from Helium] The ethereal effect of Timony’s delivery is perfect for this happiness-will-betray you song.
  • Falling Out of Love (With You) [Dean Wareham is the guy from Luna, who used to be the guy from Galaxie 500] In this brilliant anti-love song, Wareham delivers a quirky near-deadpan dismantling of a relationship that is disintegrating out of boredom.
  • Winter In July [Ayako Akashiba is the guy from the Japanese band Sunshower] Akashiba’s twee vocals make this song of geographic displacement and distant love oddly touching.
  • Pillow Fight [Mitch Easter is the famous producer guy who used to be the guy from Let’s Active] One of the standout tracks, it features Easter’s great vocal as he ponders the fate of a relationship, hoping for reconciliation, however goofy the means.
  • Dream Hat [Mac McCaughan is the guy from Superchunk and Bricks and Portatastic, and the guy from Merge Records] This is my favorite song on the disc. With a rich, wall of sound style production that belies the electronic instrumentation, it features brooding vocals and a firm rejection of a failed relationship.
  • Movies In My Head [Georgia Hubley is the guy from Yo La Tengo] In another charming broken relationship song, Hubley warns her suitor that her rich fantasy life will always be more important than his pointless entreaties.
  • In the City In the Rain [Lou Barlow is the guy from Sebadoh, Sentridoh, The Folk Implosion, etc.] Barlow turns in one of his most deadpan vocals ever, making this is-it-really-a-celebration song resonate perfectly.
  • Looking For Love (In the Hall of Mirrors) [Amelia Fletcher is the guy from the U.K. group Heavenly] Fletcher provides a spot-on delivery in one of the darkest tracks, a song about hopelessness and alienation, sounding eerily like Merritt sped up about 50%.
  • Heaven In A Black Leather Jacket [Robert Scott is the guy from The Bats, The Clean, and The Magick Heads, all of whom are from New Zealand] A perfect little vignette, this song has some of the best lines on the album, fittingly delivered by master vocalist Robert Scott, masquerading as a late-night New York nightclub habitué.
  • Here In My Heart [Anna Domino is the guy from Anna Domino] Merritt and Domino channel the Petula Clark in this upbeat love song with just a hint of darkness.
  • Puerto Rico Way [Mark Robinson is the guy from Air Miami, who was the guy from Unrest and is the guy from Teen Beat Records] Robinson provides a wonderful near-salsa vocal over rich synths as he celebrates a romance with a woman of ill repute. It’s strangely more charming than it sounds.
  • You Can’t Break A Broken Heart [Jeffrey Underhill aka Jeffrey Borchardt is the guy from Honeybunch and The Velvet Crush] Another standout track, with Underhill declaring his damaged invulnerability. It’s a brilliant kiss-off with flawless delivery.
  • When I’m Out of Town [Chris Knox is the guy from The Tall Dwarfs, who used to be the guy from Toy Love and is also Chris Knox, all of whom are from New Zealand] This dark meditation on infidelity could have been written by Knox, which is a true compliment. It’s one of the best mergers of vocalist and lyric on the album.
  • Yet Another Girl [Stuart Moxham is the guy from Young Marble Giants and The Gist] This is the bonus track and it’s a crime that it was so hard to find for so long. Moxham delivers a wonderful vocal as he reflects on a woman who defines herself by the shallow life of the clubs.

It’s quite a journey, and well worth the embarking. Few people are bold enough to try an experiment like this, and far fewer could make it succeed In the inspired hands of Stephin Merritt and his cohort, Wasps’ Nests is a nearly flawless collection of pop songs.

FURTHER LISTENING: The array of vocalists is stunning, as is the myriad of ways they have collaborated over the years. The 6ths are so distinctively Merritt that it’s dangerous to assume too much about the contributors’ sound outside the project, but if something grabs you, try the singer in another setting. Chris Knox and Barbara Manning probably differ the least. Merritt assembled a second set of 6ths for the even more trickily titled Hyacinths and Thistles. While it has some moments, it pales next to the first outing. Standouts are contributions by Sally Timms, Bob Mould, and Momus.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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