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MUSIC REVIEW (Rock)
Merlin
Merlin's Milkbar Stereo

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Check price in US$ at myMusic.com
Check price in CDN$ at CDPlus.com

Label: MCA/Universal Released: 9/25/2001


In a recent appearance on MusiquePlus (Canada's french MTV) Merlin said something to the effect of "You know those artists that have something to say but then they stick around long after they have run out of things to say. Well I guess I could be one of those artists." For the subject of much hype and possibly unrealistic expectations since his debut "A Noise Supreme", Merlin has managed to stay self-deprecating and down-to-earth despite his more-rock-star-than-thou stage presence. Rock and roll is, after all, a spectacle and Merlin tends to be in the spotlight both on and off the stage. Merlin's "Merlin's Milkbar Stereo", is the unabashedly commercial release in his somewhat confusing discography: his fifth release, if you count the ma album and the "Viddy Well, Little Brother" EP, his third full-length release under the Merlin name, and the second to cop the title from a A Clockwork Orange reference. ("The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.")

I've always thought that music (at least pop music) is more of a vocabulary than a skill: a way of re-interpreting other things you've heard and what you've learned about how to put words, notes and sound together. In this vein, a few of the elements Merlin is using: "Prince guitar sound", "Peter Gunn surf guitar", "'Owner of a Lonely Heart' keyboards & metal guitar sound", "80's Michael Jackson mid-tempo rock ballad", "Stevie Wonder keyboard", "Bob Mould/Sugar thick vocal production", "Smells Like Teen Spirit intro", and "Guns And Roses bombastic piano rock arrangement", "Every Time I See Your Picture I Cry piano", "Fleetwood Mac guitar". Come to think of it, there are a lot of 80's influenced sounds and references in there, but maybe that's just my mind at work. And this is not to say that the album is a big rip-off, more that it shows that Merlin is a music fan and he's not afraid to include a reference or allusion here and there, like many authors before him.

Merlin's Milkbar Stereo has been quite a while in the making and incorporates the touches of studios and people from Daniel Lanois' Morin Heights studio (Headstones, Fugees, Rush, The Police) in Quebec, additional production by Adam Kviman (producer of Eagle-Eye Cherry's hit single, "Save Tonight"), Chris Shaw (Butthole Surfers, Weezer), Mark Plati (David Bowie), Mike Mangini (Steve Vai's drummer?), mixing by Michael Brauer (Morris Day, Coldplay, Paul Young) and mastering by Greg Calbi (Built To Spill, Ani Difranco, David Byrne) at Sterling Sound in New York city.

As is to be expected based on the star-studded supporting cast, the production throughout is pristine, and the inclusion of keyboards, horns and production tricks like pitch-shifting and sampling serve to add to the radio-friendliness while making this album a departure from his earlier more straight-forward rock arrangements. The substantial female presence in the form of backing vocals and spoken-word voice-overs is another fresh addition. Yet the smooth lead vocals, bluntly honest lyrics and kick-ass guitar make it a distinctly Merlin affair.

Will this be the album that takes Merlin from merely "Rock-Star Skinny" to actual Rock Star? The forces involved are far too complicated to predict with accuracy but it's certainly his biggest step on the road to super-stardom so far.

Steve Donnelly Email WWW

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