Tommy Burton Reviews The Mnemonic Devices

Tommy Burton's Album Guide

This homespun band started out as a tribute to Stephin Merritt's Magnetic Fields. It was created by Rusty Spell in 1996 and was called 100,000 Fireflies. After intitial writing and recording, the group was combined with another idea of Spell's called The Mnemonic Devices. Since then, the "band" (the recordings usually consist of only Spell singing and playing all the instruments and various female vocalists assisting him) has released a full length album every year, growing more and more out of the shadow of Merritt and into the creative vision of Spell alone.

20th Century Literary Problem (Love and Letters, 1996)

This first album began life as a tribute to Stephin Merritt called 100,000 Fireflies. It was later tweaked a bit and released under the new moniker of The Mnemonic Devices. The Merritt tributes/covers work surprisingly well alongside writer Rusty Spell's own material, which make up most of the album. Female vocalist Debi Spell takes turns with Rusty singing lead vocals and both have endearing qualities. Neither of them can actually "sing," but their voices possess a certain quality that adds to the whimsy of the music. The arrangements are mostly done with a synthesizer and a computer, yet Spell manages to give them a warmth that many recordings of this nature have usually lacked. Spell's own lyrics are also interesting. Aside from covering Merritt's established themes ("I Used Up All Your Icons") and songs ("Swinging London"), he tends to lean toward lost/found love with the tracks "Please" and "All Alone." There is also a sense of displacement throughout the record. It's as though Spell isn't sure of where he should be, and if he'll ever really find true love. "I Keep Falling In Love" is a testament to this. There are three Magnetic Fields covers found here, but it's the Spell originals that make this album truly shine.

I Don't Remember (Love and Letters, 1997)

The two Spells return for more exploration on the art of relationship. Spell's lyrics can be hopelessly romantic and naive, what with titles like "I Like You." Still, this is one of the finer qualities about this group. The arrangements are slightly more complex as Spell incorporates samples from The Sea and Cake ("Forgotten Muse") and Radiohead ("Livivng Forever"). He also is beginning to break from the Merritt mold that the group began under, but the record still contains a Magnetic Fields tribute/cover in the country-esque "Crazy". They also do a nice cover version of the Rheostatics tune "Take Me In Your Hand," complete with the original's musical ending. But it's the originals that make that make this music work. Spell seems to work better when left to his own devices (no pun intended). "Anyway" leaves the listener in romantic bliss, while "Missing You" takes on a thick arrangement that sounds like a mixture of new wave and minimalism. All the while, it's melodic and even catchy. Originally this album was to be recorded with many various vocalists, but the idea was soon ababandoned as the vocalists couldn't compete with Spell's prolific nature. He eventually released this with himself and Debi again carrying the leads.

Midi Skirt (Love and Letters, 1998)

Aside from the cheesy Brian Wilson sounding "Wedding March," this album turns out to be a near masterpiece. If you skip that opening track, you'll get a complete musical journey starting with the excellent "The Emperor's New Song." Going back to the Wilson reference, it is a "pocket symphony," taking on different musical themes. We are then treated to the beautiful "Dreams in a Jar," cowritten with Debi. This is the first Devices album to be free of Magnetic Fields covers. "Our Hurricane" may be one of Spell's finest compositions with its floating, sing-song melody, but again, it the lyrics that add to the true quality of these recordings. They are so well developed that one overlooks the obvious musical shortcomings of the writer. These albums are like mini collections of short stories with musical background. But that's not completely fair, as Spell flourishes a gift for such thick arrangement, thus making his music hard to miss. "Christmas Afternoon" manages to sum up a feeling of melancholy before the listener is rushed back to the pop of "I've Got To Go." Skip the first track and you've got a fine album and a pleasurable listening experience.

The 5 Remaining Love Songs EP (Love and Letters, 1999)

This curious release is almost a throwaway from the Devices as it is return to the Magnetic Fields tribute. Four of the five songs here are Devices interpretations of Merritt tunes heard only at Magnetic Fields' concert previous to the album's release. Yet, it's the Spell original, "Little Love Song" that stands out here. The arrangements are scaled down a bit as most of the material only uses a simple piano.

All This Wasted Beauty (Love and Letters, 1999)

This may be what Spell always hoped for The Mnemonic Devices. His songs and arrangements are sung by himself and various females. Debi was long gone by the recording of this album and most of it was done outside the normal home setting of Love and Letters Studios. Many of the tracks are the finest that Spell has ever done, but this album still falls short of a complete vision that Midi Skirt has. There is no Merritt here, but he does manage to find another Merritt tribute-type band and cover one of their tunes in "Pearl Necklace." He also turns in a decent cover of The Halo Benders' "Virginia Reel Around The Mountain." Not all of the females work here, but many do. "There Is You" and "Finally" might be the closest Rusty has ever come to writing a "hit." "I Cry I Cry I Cry I Cry" is a lovely pop ditty concerning the end of the world, which is a new theme in the Spell writing book. "Sprite-Like" features a musical arrangement that sends warm fuzzies to the tummy with its shooting stars and five million Rustys singing along with himself. When this album shines, it really shines, but the lesser material drags it down enough that a CD programmer is almost nescessary. Hopefully, Spell with continue to develop as an artist and who knows what the future holds in store for fans of his music?

Copyright (c) Oct 2002 by Love and Letters Music