Wednesday, May 27, 2009

7 of 69: Damn you/ I've never stayed up as late as this

"Come Back From San Francisco"

Ah, the long distance relationship. Or rather, the long distance non-relationship, since much of what I can tease from these lyrics suggests a one-way street of rueful longing. It just so happens that street runs the breadth of our entire country, from New York to San Francisco. Not a small piece of real estate, that. In either case it doesn't seem like anyone is coming back to anybody else anytime soon.

Shirley Simms sings the lyrics on the album and this generates some interesting gender confusion ("Should pretty boys in discos/ distract you from your novel" implies that either a) the singer's far away man is bisexual or b) if the person in San Francisco is a girl then the singer herself is gay or at least bisexual) since the words are carefully arranged not to give away any gender pronouns for the love object. It's always just you, you, you. I've heard that Merritt will perform the vocals in concert if Simms is not around. This smoothes out some wrinkles, if anything makes the story 'simpler' so to speak seeing as Merritt, a gay man would most likely be pining over another man.

The second most notable theme of the song is an unattractive and overwhelming inferiority complex. The singer is constantly showing how insecure and just not good enough she is.
There's some wordplay here. She's not just "in love with them" she is "awful in love them." Key difference. She talks of worrying, quitting all her bad habits, being inevitably betrayed, to sum up, "Will you stay/ I don't think so." And that only if her lover comes back to her in the first place. Even the (mightily) strained metaphors imply a submissive relationship. Her object is powerfully vast like the Moon (which will carry on being a heavenly body with or without her assuming the role of its dutiful poetry) or a force of nature like the Wind (which will go on blowing through anything and everything regardless if the singer is its trees). The object of affection needs her only in so much that she enhances its already very obvious attractive qualities.

Even the soft strumming of the guitars give away the singer's true feelings. "You need me," she says, but I'm not sure even she believes that. Perhaps something with more percussion, or a more confident electronic rythym would be more convincing, more likely to change my mind. But does that mean 69LS doesn't need "Come Back from San Francisco"? Nothing of the sort. This sort of love, while perhaps unattractive, has its place. I for one, am just happy its way the hell over in New York.

grade: a "fondness" (1 out of 6)

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

6 of 69: I guess I should take Prozac, right/ and just smile all night/ at somebody new?

"I Don't Want to Get Over You"

Read just about any critical assessment of 69LS and you'll be bombarded with praise. This was a very favorably reviewed project, and almost every article I've read boils down to the same key topics. Granted, music journalism has become even more 'catching' with the advent of blogging and the rise of the internet as the key source of information about new music. By now it feels like most writers on the web are spewing the exact same regurgitated catchphrases
(as opposed to, say, physical "zines" whose material, while more original, can and often does feel dated in the mere time it takes to get the damn thing to the printer and back). However it is surprising how much reviewers aped from each other even in 1999. Either that, or everyone just noticed the same things:

1. The scope. The album's massive length has been discussed as both a positive (a sweeping magnum opus) and a negative (can one actually sit down and listen to the whole damn shebang in one go?) And as some have joked, like, totally 69, dude!

2. Fascination with Merritt's voice. This comes largely from folks who, like me, were first introduced to the Magnetic Fields through 69LS. At the end of this project I will have to gather all of my Merritt Voice descriptions and have a simile "battle to the death". Everybody, it's a Metaphor-off! (Listen to your friend Billy Zane...)

3. And the eclecticism. Perhaps the most signature aspect of the album is just how many different styles of music are embraced, parodied, messed with, sincerely reinterpreted, savaged, honored, and buried. Which makes it all the more frustrating when casual listeners say the darndest reductive things.

A few weeks ago I was listening to V1 in a back room at work and a passerby heard a snippet of "I Don't Believe in the Sun" and groaned. He then cracked his typical litany of jokes that the situation appeared to cry out for:

"Awww, cheer up, emo kid!"
"Put on some sad bastard music, see if I care!"
"Rob, that's the worst fucking sweater I've ever seen, that's a Cosby Sweater, a Caaaawwwwwzzzzby sweatuh!"

This wouldn't have been so irritating if not a week earlier, just days before this project sprang forth from my forehead fully grown, the prime antagonist dismissed this music in an equally casual manner as being 'emo.'

This is frustrating for a variety of reasons, least of all the aforementioned remarkable variety found on 69LS. But even still, if you take the Magnetic Fields body of work into account, whatever it is that 'emo' describes would hardly be accurate in the first place. Merritt's fallback style appears to be variations on 80's electro-pop. Snappy synths and playful guitars. Generally upbeat and fun. So is 69LS so different? Or do people just love dismissing stuff as 'emo'?

"I Don't Want to Get Over You," is certainly not the best place to begin my rebuttal. It is mopey and despondent, but gets interesting as it describes how easy it is for a person to slip into this mindset, the "happy being dumped" philosophy. This comes after the real pain of separation, the not being able to eat or sleep part, the raw depression where something you had is missing and the mind and body have yet to build up psychic and physical defenses. There is a romantic, poetic aspect to being so broke up over love, a misguided egocentric place where you are so sure that most people just don't have the ability to love like I do man, but good friends will only tolerate you acting like an idiot for so long. But some people don't respond to their friends hints, and this drudgery becomes a lifestyle choice. There's a slippery slope down to maudlinville, full of "clove cigarettes and vermouth" where people "dress in black and read Camus." Merritt, to his credit, appears to be making fun of this kind of behavior, dismissing it as only fit for 17 year-olds.

But its slightly more complicated than all that. Because there is no quick fix. You can't go from being in love to miserable to all better in 24 hours. There is a time where sleeping pills to get through the night might actually be a wise choice, and where a night out with friends sounds just nightmarish, and Prozac might be the only way to be able to "smile all night" and not bring everyobody else down. Which is the genius of even a mediocre song on this album. That it can take itself seriously and not so seriously all at once.

Or, you know, it's just a bunch of emo whining.

Grade: "Puppy Love"

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

5 of 69: Have I annoyed you or is there a boy who well he's just a whore

"Reno Dakota"

I suppose this short, playful (I wouldn't exactly call it disposable) song is a chance to explain how I came upon the 69LS in general.

As the last entry suggests, I'm a sucker for lists. And I simply LOVE year's end 'best of' lists. Back in 1999 I was a junior at Syracuse University. There is (I hope this shouldn't be modified to 'was') a great record store downtown called, perhaps somewhat unfortunately, Soundgarden. It was the record store that sold me my first Les Savy Fav EP, my first White Stripes album, my first Le Tigre, Fugazi and inevitably, Magnetic Fields CD. The kind of record store that has a scruffy mongrel dog that kicks around your feet as your fingers clickety clack through the bins of used CD jewel cases. The kind of record store that gives birth to hipsters such as myself en masse.

As 1999 dovetailed into 2000, I flipped through SPIN magazine's year end best albums article. This was right around the time SPIN was very tough on music, had become the slightly pale and freckled Rolling Stone of its time (while Rolling Stone no longer had any sort of critical acumen toward music, e.g. putting the backstreet Boys on the cover and celebrated Kid Rock as a musical savant). A few years later someone must have realized that this wasn't a very good business model, and SPIN caught up with Rolling Stone once more, only the crappy contemporary era version of RS, (you know, sans the meaty political journalism) that it has never been able to shake. Of course I'm being way too hard on SPIN (why oh why did you play fast and loose with my heart?), but only because I've since fallen for magazines like Magnet and (RIP) Punk Planet.

SPIN's 1999 best album list had some serious chops, with names like the Flaming Lips (at their peak IMO, with Soft Bulletin), Beck (with his insanely catchy party album Midnight Vultures), Mary J Blige, Rage Against the Machine, Wilco, Built to Spill, Ol' Dirty Bastard and at number 4, the Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs. The latter entry struck me as just the sort of over-ambitious magnum opus I might like (I really like excessive trainwrecks, especially films, like A.I. and the Fountain), and when I had a chance the following June, while restoring the empty coffers of my paltry bank account with shitty Summer jobs, I picked up the first volume.

And the thing is, I really didn't get into it. I liked it, but certainly didn't appreciate it. I listened to it a bunch of times before it slept and gathered dust on my CD tower for several years. It wasn't until I picked up a used copy of Volume 2 (just filling out my collection really) that I fell in love with the Magnetic Fields. That is the CD that captured my heart and urged me to buy V3 a mere week later, but wouldn't even allow me the sonic space to listen to that later purchase, or go back to V1 for that matter. To this day I've probably listened to the series in this kind of ratio 5 : 9 : 2. And the first 23 songs only so much because I've owned it nearly twice as long as the rest.

Alright, I suppose this narcissistic music history lesson must end. Short story made shorter, 69LS is a grower of the best sort. As I descend into the depths of adulthood (to say nothing of middle-age) I find that I can finally appreciate work of this caliber. Because I'm wiser? Probably not. Mostly, I would guess, because it is fucking awesome.

grade: "puppy love" (2 out of 6)

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

4 of 69: Woah Nelly

"A Chicken With its Head Cut Off"

Among the many reasons why I love this song, it begins with a list. Hurray for lists!

1. Eligible.
2. Not too stupid
3. Intelligible
4. Cute as Cupid
5. Knowledgeable
6. Not always right.
7. Salvageable
8. Free for the night.

My man here is modest. Look, he's not asking for the Moon. Not this time. No, he's sitting at the dive-bar, glancing around and is hoping for the best. Is this Convenience Mart love? Nope. It is everyone you've ever known love. Because knights in shining armor/princesses with their braided golden locks are hard to come by. And one can waste a whole lot of time obsessing over that shit.

Maybe its because the weather is getting its Summer on around here and is making me recall the days when I was a perpetual undergraduate bachelor, but there's a feeling built up in this song, along with the modesty of course, that the singer is falling in love with just about every person that walks by. There were times when I'd walk out of design studio at 8 in the morning (after staying up all night) to go home and catch some winks until 1 or 2 in the afternoon or so before starting the whole work press all over again. And on those shambling, warm May mornings I'll tell you what. I must have fallen head over heels in love with every girl I passed. "All around the barnyard falling in and out of love" is quite apropos. Now I wasn't the drooling idiot variety of underclassmen. No, I could barely manage a smile before blushing and looking away at my feet, but it sure as hell felt like my "heart was running around like a chicken with its head cut off."

Though to be fair, I have to imagine the singer of this song sees a lot of action. There's a suave everyman-ish character to his romancin'. He's up front about what he's looking for, but he probably won't call you back. All that matters is right up there in that crushingly simple yet wonderfully poignant list. Are you single? We don't want to be upsetting a more important relationship here. Let's have you be able to keep up your end of the conversation and be cute about it. As far as 'knowledge' goes, I'm fairly certain he's not looking for book smarts. And if you are a fixer-upper? Whatever, doesn't matter if you're free for the night. Because he's also kind of a horn-dog. He's looking to get laid but don't be expecting "stars exploding in the night or electric eels under the covers." Bottom line, he's realistic.

And although Merritt sings this with with a roly poly bawdiness in his belly, its not too difficult to listen to this song with a woman on the mic. I might have used a lot of "he's" in the above review, but its as gender non-specific as any of the 69. In fact, in my life I might have known more women who behave this way than men. And while this behavior "ain't pretty", its not like anyone is coming out of this little tryst with hurt feelings.

Another solid "adoration" (4 of 6)

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Monday, May 18, 2009

3 of 69: You said you were in love with me/ Both of us know that that's impossible

"All My Little Words"

At the risk of descending too far into the soggy morass of psychology and all those french philosophers of objects and subjects, there is something be said of being in love with someone, but not yet with them. In a ten round title bout, Desire might very well clean Love's clock, especially in the early rounds, and there are plenty of reasons for this, particularly for the
romantically inclined and the imaginative among us. Before declaring your affections, before being recognized, accepted, brushed aside or bluntly rejected, before one actually knows anything of consequence about what will surely be your Great True Love, anything is possible. Your object can be anything you want him or her to be, they are a gigantic projection screen for all your fantasies. And wooing them! The mind revels in an infinite number of possible futures where we are impossibly suave and witty and say all the right things. Where we fully command all our little words. And nobody can possibly resist them.

At first listen, "All My Little Words," seems simple enough. Merritt gives up his vocal reins to another man, one L D Beghtol. Unlike Merritt's famously untrained bellow, Beghtol's voice, to my ears, is a floral, almost histrionic affair, especially when paired with the sparse strumming of the simple accompaniment (strummmm, bdang-dang bdang-dang). It is a voice that seems comfortably at home playing the troubadour at a renaissance fair. And it is sincerely lamenting a failure, of sorts, and if one cursorily examines the lyrics, well, that failure seems like one of courtship. The end result was rejection, this object was 'unboyfriendable.'

Yet "You said you were in love with me/ Both of us know that that's impossible," is as loaded a pair of lines as any song on 69LS. I completely apologize for the perhaps half-baked interpretation that is to follow, but I'm of a mind to say that the "you said you were in love with me" is entirely in the songwriter's saccharine-sweet head. They then follow this up with "both of us know that that's impossible" because they know they'll never get up the courage to ask. Or perhaps they know their lovely object would never go for them for a thousand and one very real life reasons. The fact that someone said yes, even in thier head, while nice in a heady day-dream sort of way, in the end remains just so many little words.

But the "you said you were in love with me" of the first stanza can be read in many different ways, least among them literally. Perhaps they did indeed receive an affirmation, but in that case what went wrong? More to the point, what exactly is the singer really in love with?

One one hand, almost certainly another human being. But on the other hand, I'd argue that on some level Beghtol isn't singing to anyone at all, at least not in the objective sense. His object is "a splendid butterfly," it's most wonderful feature: it's wings (they are what make it beautiful after all). The imagery is both delicate and transformative. It's difficult to think of a butterfly without recalling its extraordinary metamorphosis, and to call out its wings is to specifically latch on to its elusive nature. In my mind, the singer is also describing his desire in the first stanza, a powerful and dramatic emotion that has undergone so many odd transformations and one which might just be narrowing in on it's target. Confused, excited about all the possible outcomes only one thing is certain of desire, no power on earth will ever make it stand still, will "ever make it stay."

This one gets another "adoration" (4 out of 6)
(and apologies for a simultaneously overwrought yet undercooked review. The next one will be better, I promise!)

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Friday, May 15, 2009

2 of 69: The only Sun I ever knew/ Was the Beautiful one that was You

"I Don't Believe in the Sun."

Only two songs in and it's already come to this. It's come to 'went aways,' 'nevers,' and 'given up and dies.' It's come to astronomical revisionism. Not only has the world been turned upside-down, the heavens are in a state of disrepair. And all because he's just not that into you.

Although that is slightly unfair. This isn't the indignant anger and frustration of putting yourself out on a limb, of asking someone out and being rejected. That would easier to swallow. No, this is the deep gloom of being loved, of actually getting in and finding a place for yourself, of being shined upon for a time, and then being rejected. This shit hurts.

And this is the first time on the album that the listener gets a real taste of Merritt's broken basset hound voice. A voice that really feels like it could keep the Sun from rising. He says he doesn't believe in the Sun and when I hear him I'm inclined to agree. Even the moon and stars aren't safe. You took them all with you, you son of a bitch. But again, this isn't a song about resentment. It's about longing. This person doesn't want to rewrite the heavens because you left. This person still thinks you are beautiful.

There is something kind of wonderful how Merritt tips the romantic universals that poets have harnessed from the Sun (or more often the Moon) and parlays them into something personal and specific. Here Love is the fundamental right of all people, it "shine[s] down on everyone." Yet the singer's Sun is an individual one, "the only one he ever knew" the "one that never shone on other guys." In other words, just because you have felt the sun shine, doesn't mean you understand a damn thing about how it felt like shining on him.

There is only one moment where I feel like the singer might be finding their way through this, one crack in their armor of romantic melancholy:

"Since you went away/
it's nighttime all day/
and it's usually raining too."/

That last little addition sounds, to my ear, like a half-hearted attempt at a joke. Merritt is winking at himself because he knows how ridiculous it sounds to believe the Sun won't ever shine on him anymore, that this blackout is a cruelty perpetuated specifically for him. There is a lightness in the last line that betrays a subtle enjoyment of being left in the cold. As if Merritt is almost perpared to admit that feeling this shitty might, in the long run, be a good thing. 'Cause the only way you get to night is through the day, and with a little astronomical tinkering, hey, we might be able to rig up another Sun sometime after all. But not too soon.

I give this song an "adoration" (4 out of 6)

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

1 of 69: It's only fair to tell you/ I'm absolutely cuckoo

Recently a friend of mine sent me the following little missive:

"I only like about 3 of the 69 Love Songs."

I had to read the damn sentence four times in order for it to penetrate my thick, disbelieving skull. Surely I had read it incorrectly? I was baffled, flummoxed, completely bamboozled as to how someone could have any other opinion of the Magnetic Fields magnum opus other than completely outfuckingstanding. Gradually my perplexed mind succumbed to slight case of miffery. How dare anyone hate on Stephin Merritt! My brow furrowed and I may or may not have snorted. But that emotion was silly and short-lived, and quickly faded to my natural fallback state of quiet curiosity and general bemusement which lead to the following question:

"Why do I love 69 Love Songs so much?"

And thus a new blog feature was born. In the coming weeks (and most likely months) I plan on digging through each and every one of those 69 precisely crafted pop songs and waxing a little poetic on one of my favorite albums of all time. I've also devised a scale, or ranking system, less to weed out any possible stumblers, and more to separate out those songs that truly affect me, the ones that really sing, the ones I can't imagine living without. So after a (sometimes not so) brief discussion of each song I'll give it a grade from least enjoyed to most liked:

1. fondness
2. puppy love
3. weak in the knees
4. adoration
5. infatuation
6. ecstasy

And seeing as we all have our own opinions on what composes a great song, feel free to castigate me in the comments for not loving your favorite or for really enjoying something you think is a complete joke. And without further ado...

1/69 "Absolutely Cuckoo"

I don't know about you but I tend to really dig albums that open with a bit of quirk. It is the rare album that can come out guns blazing with the might of a single or knock-out punch caliber song and not make everything that follows feel like an afterthought. Even big serious albums sometimes have a sort of throwaway first song, not that I view 'Cuckoo' as inessential. But it's tone is playful and just barely hinting at the amazingly comprehensive rumination of love that follows on the rest of the album.

There is a bit of self-referentiality here with lines like "Don't fall in love with me yet/ We only recently met/ Give me a week or two to/ Go Absolutely Cuckoo." As in don't judge a book by its cover or an album of 69 (!!!) songs by a single tune that clocks in just over 90 seconds. It presupposes a wealth of good stuff to come but is coy about it, offering up a single warning: "I only tell you this 'cause/ I'm easy to get rid of/ But not if you fall in love" which, as I mentioned far above I have a hard time beliving anyone with even a scrap of a soul could not possibly do after giving this album a listen or three (hundred in my case).

The playfulness is also very reassuring, and adds to the winking title of the project (aka "69 Love Songs") in disarming the worrisome notion that no topic can be as pretentious, overwrought or heavy (in the most perjorative sense) as Love. So why not come running out of the gate with a bit of levity? There's plenty of time for inamorato and "can't live withouts".

I give this song a glowing "weak in the knees" (or 3 out of 6).

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Heath and Esme Have an Adventure

Disclaimer: It should be known to the reader that the following story (helpfully narrated in the third person) regards a pair of individuals whose names have been disguised under pseudonyms. Hopefully this veil of anonymity will protect them the harsh glare of the outside world for the subject matter of the anecdote below is a bit... sensitive. Under no circumstances should one imagine that the unfortunate experiences detailed below happened to me, or anyone else I might know. With that in mind...

Heath and Esme decided to take a lovely vacation away from their native Madison. While their trip was not far, it was sufficient to get them away from it all, and their destination was a two stop-light hamlet in the middle of nowhere, Iowa. The sleepy town was chosen precisely for its backwoods, old-timey, slightly old fashioned ways, and when Heath pulled into the motel he had already shed his city stiffness and a smile crossed his face.

Esme was thoughtful enough to have packed all kinds of foodstuffs for a simple cold dinner, as the pair had come here in years past and found the local restaurants either closed or... not particularly up to snuff. This evening was no exception as the diner was closed and a majority of the village's 12 cars were parked in front of the lone bar with a flickering Budweiser logo in the window.

After checking in the pair decided that it would be best if they secured some sort of dessert to follow their simple repast before settling in for the rest of the night. Ice-cream topped the list of desirables, and it was this delicious treat that propelled them back out into the foggy midwestern night. However, as the doors of the Toyota banged shut, Heath was reminded of an unfortunate spat of forgetful packing earlier in the day. Heath is a respectable and loving young man, and the particular item he had forgotten, one does not speak of them in polite conversation. Needless to say it is easier to forget them than say, your toothpaste.

Now, hours after the fateful blunder, it occured to Heath, that it might be advisable to procure some of said indelicate items. Surely this could be accomplished at the same time as finding some delicous ice-cream sandwiches, say, at a gas station or what passed as a convenient store in these parts. The first two stops proved futile, and whilst driving into the adjacent town they saw a glowing sign which might have had a hand in impeding their progress. There was a formidable sized Bible Camp in the area. As everyone knows, Bible Camps are notoriously anti ice-cream.

Perhaps because of this powerful Camp, a jaunt into the neighboring town's supermarket was equally unsuccessful. But there in the distance, loomed the mighty sign of the Dread pagan god Walmart. Surely they would have both items the young couple sought as no mere Bible Camp could dictate what a corporate behemoth stocked on its shelves.

Like the bar, Walmart appeared to be a recreational destination as a freakish preonderance of the (larger) neighboring town's populace roamed the megamart's aisles, looking for that one purchase that would complete them, I suppose. Sobbing human pupae in strollers and generously proportioned middle-aged men sauntered amidst scandalously clad tweens and prowling cougars. It took Heath and Esme no time at all to locate each and every item on their list, which had grown to include plastic cutlery for their ice-cream cups, some mints, and chapstick among the other items in question.

Esme did her best to select the cashier that might be least embarassed by the purchase, a firm but friendly mountain of a woman who as expected said little during the transaction. However the fate was not yet through with Heath and Esme this evening, for when they approached the exit doors they were greeted by a kindly old man, employed by Walmart simply to wellwish and say goodbye. And should by chance, an alarm go off, say, maybe he could check and see that the reciept for items pruchased matched the items in the bag.

As the alarm sounded after the sweet grandfatherly septuagenarian mumbled a sincere "have a good night!" Esme rolled her eyes and muttered, "Oh for fuck's sake," which it is true, was particularly apropos for this trip. She handed the doddering man the bag and the receipt while Heath folded his arms in exasperation. The couple blushed as the greeter exclaimed, "Gee, you've got all kinds of stuff in here." Which they did indeed. He was quite obviously just as embarrassed as the young couple and blushed profusely. However it must have been a Walmart policy or something because he then proceeded to take each item out of the bag and demagnetize it, following this up with a detailed scribbling on some notepad of each offending article.

Five minutes later Heath and Esme were laughing quite hysterically on their drive back to their Podunk bunk. Surely this wasn't the kind of story they could tell their friends, at least, not without a modest amount of impropriety. So they passed it along to me, and here I sit, having just narrated a story that by no means did I have anything at all whatsoever to do with.

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