The Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs Vol. 1
There are a lot of touchstones, but there's only one Stephin Merritt. The man behind The Magnetic Fields (and Future Bible Heroes, and The Gothic Archies, and The 6ths) has been an indie-rock darling for more than a decade now, since the days of his early gems Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus. His albums are filled to the brim with incredible pop songs, done in nearly every imaginable style and often utilizing unconventional instrumentation (banjo, tuba, cello, etc.), and the man writes lyrics like no one else. 69 Love Songs Vol. 1, the first in a 3-CD set (still haven't heard the other two yet), is all of the above and more, and feels suspiciously like Mr. Merritt's masterwork. Seemingly on a whim, he recruited a gang of talented guest vocalists and musicians to bring to life, well, a full 69 love songs, and the result is somewhere between a collection of short stories and a very, very strange Broadway score.
Merritt's songs aren't so much traditional "songs" as compact little literary sketches, in the vein of stuff by Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen; he's a good enough storyteller that he can lay out more than your average 3-hour movie in a mere 4 minutes, and keep the listener's attention besides. On Vol. 1, we're treated to a host of jilted lovers, both bitter and otherwise, of all shapes and sizes. "Reno Dakota" is a sung-spoken lament to the cruel object of a crush, while "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" is the happy-go-lucky tale of a guy who's content to only be around when the love of his life wants to go for a drive, and the voice of the narrator of "How Fucking Romantic" drips with the venom of the ill-used. The cast of characters is as vividly painted as those of an Elmore Leonard novel, each one unique yet endearingly familiar in their own way; who out there can't empathize with some sort of love-gone-wrong story?
Switching styles like gears on a bike, Merritt goes from "Punk Love," a rampaging, incoherent teenage anthem so accurate you can almost feel the hormones, to the banjo-inflected Johnny Cash-esque bluegrass track "The One You Really Love" and the weird walking funk of "Fido, Your Leash is Too Long," proving that the man can pretty much do anything he wants, and well. The whole thing flows nicely along, despite these shifts, and it occasionally feels like the breaks between tracks are simply set changes in the same big production. Maybe the Broadway score metaphor is the most appropriate, after all. (JH)
(Merge Records -- P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514; http://www.mrg2000.com/merge/)
A little late for the millennium (God damn, I hate that word...), but the latest from DC's Make-Up is one hell of an apocalyptic record. They call what they do "gospel yeh-yeh," and while I dunno what the "yeh-yeh"'s for, the gospel part is accurate -- these ex-Nation Of Ulysses kids definitely testify. Their brand of gospel's not of the churchgoing variety, but is more gloomy, unsettling, and disturbing; Save Yourself seems less like praise to the divinity of your choice and more like a warning about the perils of the dark side of life, a message that comes through most directly on tracks like "The Prophet" and "Save Yourself."
To me, though, the more interesting message is the one that makes its mark on the music. Musically, The Make-Up have moved away somewhat from their soulful side, sounding here more like a '60s garage-pop band than anything else. The dark, unrelenting throb of the music plays back images of the '60s in my head when I hear it: newsreels of cops clubbing protesters; the bodies of G.I.s, face-down in the jungle mud; and young student organizers hanging from Southern trees. The '60s weren't all peace & love, and Save Yourself is a tense, frenzied reminder of that. "The Bells," in particular, makes me think of those shitty '60s movies they forced us to watch in middle school, the ones that proclaimed how bad drugs were for you, where fried kids freaked out and jumped through windows and all that. "White Belts," on the other hand, moves forward a bit to the '70s, and steals a chorus from "Fat Albert," as well as appropriating some serious Prince-ly vocal affectations (but hey, he appropriated 'em from James Brown, so I don't mind).
The album ends on an weirdly-modernized retro note, with a cover of Hendrix's "Hey Joe" -- it makes sense, considering the '60s vibe alluded to above, and I don't think it's any accident Ian Svenonius & co. chose one of the most despairing songs of the era to showcase. And in fact, they do Jimi one better, taking his song to new spastic, tense heights in a psychotic/psychedelic raveup; a fitting end to this album. (JH)
(K Records -- P.O. Box 7154, Olympia, WA. 98507; http://www.kpunk.com/)
Masters of the Hemisphere
I am not a Freemdoom
Okay, this is going to sound bizarre, but I'll try my best to give a description of this album; that way you'll know what to expect (although it probably won't help). With their newest offering, the Masters of the Hemisphere have created either a work of sonic genius or one of the stupidest joke albums since Green Jello's Three Little Pigs. I am not a Freemdoom is a concept album, chronicling the valiant battle of the inhabitants of Krone Ishta (notably the one-armed Ed and his whale-like buddy Mal) against the evil polluting dog genius Freemdoom and his henchman Gorgar, all in sparkling-clean, Beach Boys-esque pop. I'm not kidding. The CD comes with a comic book, the kind your weird kid brother made you for your birthday when he was ten and you were seventeen, and it tells the whole deal in pictures, in case you don't get it (although the songs' lyrics are remarkably straightforward, assuming you know who "Freemdoom" is). I won't give away all the plot twists, but trust me, this is freaky shit -- at one point the heroes lay a trap for Freemdoom by using the Frog King to lure the dog to an unpolluted reservoir, and they then smoke him out by lighting a field of pot ablaze. As I sit here listening to the earnest, shy-boy melodies about co-dependent monsters, cigarette-smoking sno-cone guys with cybernetic arms and secret underground lairs with pits and spikes, I can't help but think that somewhere Brian Wilson is smiling. (JH)
(Kindercore Records -- P.O. Box 461, Athens, GA. 30603; http://www.kindercore.com/)
one million safe hours
An interesting, and slightly frustrating, album. The bulk of this album is made up of instrumental progcore ditties based around repetition that will satisfy the musical itches of those who like the stylings of Circle (to name just one guitar-based band who repeats parts in 15/8 time signature at very loud volumes -- Plaid Retina fans will probably be equally satisfied). What's frustrating, however, is how the opening and closing tracks transcend the rest of the album by experimenting with the form. The opening track plays with dub-style processing of some of the elements of the basic form to create a heady and satisfying stew. Meanwhile, the closing track works in (presumably sampled) gamelan to create a spooky, driving sound unlike anything I've heard. The frustration is that these two tracks point out the powerful, unique entity Mechakucha could be instead of the reasonably decent progcore entity the rest of the record makes them out to be. Here's hoping they pursue their experimental side further on the next record; in the meantime, I'll be happy with what I can get. And no, I have no idea how to pronounce the band name. (DD)
(Frenetic Records -- P.O. Box 640434, San Francisco, CA. 94164-0434)
Lo-fi is a strange and mystifying aesthetic. It came about by necessity, since it used to be expensive (and in some cases impossible) for an artist to create a professional-sounding recording. But then a few lo-fi bands struck it big (or big enough) and something strange happened: even though technology finally caught up with the DIY movement, some folks decided that the sonic crappiness borne out of necessity was actually what they wanted in the first place and stuck with it. (Incidentally, the same thing happened with cheesy-FX television shows like Xena.)
There are plausible arguments for both sides of the debate. After a typically bewildering performance, I once asked Chris Knox why he released as albums what other artists would have as demos. His response, which I believe was totally sincere, was that many bands' demos were much more interesting than their actual albums. He was not, I believe, talking about Mild 7.
I can't be sure, however, since all I've got to go on is Unfiltered. It is a lazy and half-assed collection of half- and un-written songs, and it is portrayed as exactly that. The band's Web site refers to it as a compilation of demos amassed by the group over the years, but that doesn't excuse it: a demo is supposed to sell the song, if only to friends and bandmates. The two guys who make up Mild 7 apparently attempted to record these properly and decided that this sounded better. I can't even imagine.
When Chris Knox puts out half-assed albums, it's half-assed in arrangement and production, not songwriting or (key) performance. They may be demos (or, as the case may be, not), but he puts everything into it. Mild 7 figure that it's enough to be a couple of guys dicking around with a 4-track (check out the appallingly conceived, written and performed "Fish Tacos" if you don't believe me). Everything about Unfiltered is lazy. The lyrics sound as though the duo wrote until they reached the first rhyme they found and then figured they were done (for the times they didn't even wait that long). A few songs, like "Barracuda" and "Two Negatives Make A Positive," could probably be pretty decent if the words weren't incredibly stupid. The closest thing here to a real song is "Love," which could be a sweet pop tune but is completely undone by lyrics that not only telegraph themselves but send out emissaries to announce their impending arrival.
Everything else is just a mess, from the "eek eek eek" thrown in to support the line "I wish I was a chimpanzee" in "Just A Boy" to the dead silence that cuts off "Steve Martin" halfway through to the Spanish-flavored version of the same song ("Estevan Martin") to probably the most aimless cover of "Little Red Corvette" you'll ever hear. I've always thought that the song was overrated, but not that overrated. And while I'm sure that there may very well be a great song to be written about Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, I can tell you that "The Last One With That Arm" is most assuredly not it.
Unfiltered isn't on a label, and that in itself is telling. Not only is nobody outside the group willing to put themselves on the line for it, the group itself couldn't even get it together enough to create a record label for themselves to play with. It's an extra step that might cost money and certainly takes time and energy, so why bother? Hell, they didn't even list their URL correctly on the packaging. If these guys ever get another chance to record a real album, God, I hope that they take some time, spend some money and do it right. (MH)
(Mild 7 -- http://www.mindspring.com/~beaumontj/mild7.html)
Building Nothing Out Of Something
This is a singles/B-sides compilation, and thus is pretty much subject to the identical review of every compilation of this nature -- there's some great underpublicized tunes that fit the band's archetypal sound (for example, "Never Ending Math Equation"), some obscure experiments that don't work ("A Life of Artic Sounds"), some obscure experiments that work surprisingly well ("Workin' on Leavin' the Livin'"), some just flat out bad songs ("All Nite Diner"), and at least one hamfisted cover (the surprisingly effective "Sleepwalkin'"). The only things that really vary in these situations are the overall quality of the artist and the distribution of the different types of songs. Modest Mouse, a band that I avoided for far too long because of some dubiously thought-out reviews that claimed them to be "whiny," are one of the greats of the last ten years (at least in my book), and this collection manages to concentrate largely on the most desirable of the above categories. In other words, reasonably essential for the initiated, but as always, beginners are directed to the full lengths first, though the slightly bizarre inclusion of an album track from The Lonesome Crowded West and three tracks from Interstate 8 may make this a better introduction than the average singles comp. (DD)
(Up Records -- P.O. Box 21328, Seattle, WA. 98111; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.uprecords.com/)
The Gay EP
First impressions really can make or break a band, unfortunately. You get that first glimpse of something or someone, and despite trying to be open-minded and non-judgmental, you inevitably make a decision about whatever or whoever it is you're seeing for the first time, a decision that colors every perception from then on. That's kind of how this EP feels, to me -- I first heard Muckafurgason on one of Deep Elm's series of Emo Diaries comps, and pretty much pigeonholed them as "okay, another melodic indie-rock band, not much new." I guess that song wasn't super-representative of the band, though, because the debut EP by these NY popsters is more Cheap Trick than Sunny Day Real Estate.
As might be inferred by the CD's title, the first and second-to-last tracks are two different versions of the same song, a cheery pop ode to being gay, "You Ain't A Man"; the first is some damn fine pop-rock, and the second (the "West" mix) is the club hit dance remix, which somehow manages to be even catchier than the more straightforward "East" mix. Gay or straight, it's hard not to crack a smile at the joyful chorus of "You ain't a man until you've had a man," not to mention the silly clapping-and-voices breakdown in the middle.
The rest of the CD doesn't deal with quite the same subject matter, really, but a general relationship/love theme runs throughout, from the poignant Ben Lee-ish melancholy of "Ex-Girlfriend's Birthday" to the goofy bop of "I Wanna Be Your Guy" and the quiet retro-swing of "Every Once in a While." The result, thankfully, is a catchy-as-hell little mini-album of pop genius. Issallabout love, yo. (JH)
(Deep Elm Records -- P.O. Box 36939, Charlotte, NC. 28236; email@example.com; http://www.deepelm.com/)