Monday, May 30, 2005

In your electronic arms

"Bubblegum and experimental music and nothing in between" is how Merritt had described the Magnetic Fields in the pre-69LS days, before a more consciously theatre-centric songwriting approach began to poke its head out of the shell. If you change "bubblegum" to "pop" in that statement, you might describe the music of his labelmate Laurie Anderson, the incomparable spiky-haired figure who boldly introduced the avant-garde to wide audiences. Her work is incredibly imaginative, using a variety of unusual violins and heavy electronics, and often expresses tones of apprehension and curiosity through both her fictional and non-fictional narrations. Several key features of many of her songs include the use of pitch-shifting for her vocals, an embrace of musique concrète, and frequently alternating between speaking and singing. Her concerts are quite involved affairs, leading many to call her a "performance artist," but that term is too constricting to include the astounding variety of visuals and sounds and unclassified elements.

Merritt has been a longtime fan of Anderson's, along with Claudia Gonson, who made Anderson a subject of her senior thesis at Harvard. The track "Technical (You're So)" is partially a tribute to Anderson, perhaps noting her distinctive gender-neutral appearance with the question "Are you a boy or a girl?"

In the 69 Love Songs booklet, Daniel Handler and Merritt discuss the track "Grand Canyon" and the Benjamin Britten opera Paul Bunyan:

Handler:'s a wonderful opera and it has a sort of similar fussy abstraction of cowboyness that the Magnetic Fields seem to enjoy.
Merritt: Which is stolen from Laurie Anderson, who probably got it from Benjamin Britten, I suppose. I love Laurie Anderson for being able to write heartbreaking melodies with words that make fun of heartbreaking melodies.

The track "O Superman (for Massenet)" is the song that put Anderson on the map, even reaching the top ten in Great Britain in the early 80s. It's a hypnotic and unsettling song, presenting an eerily technological maternal figure as a questionable source of comfort. (For more on "O Superman," listen to this radio program from the American Mavericks series.) When asked what he considered Laurie Anderson's best work to be, Merritt quoted from "Hiawatha," from the album Strange Angels, perhaps the most accessible of Anderson's albums. For newbies: if you lean towards pop, then try Strange Angels. If you leans towards the experimental, then try Big Science (or if you have the cash, the massive 4-CD United States Live, one of the best recordings in the history of everything.)

Monday, May 23, 2005

We design synthesizers

A name wasn't given to the bouncy instrumental track that begins Holiday upon the album's original release (on Feel Good All Over), but the track was dubbed "BBC Radiophonic Workshop" on the album's re-issue in 1999 on Merge Records. I don't know if Merritt had the name in mind when he composed the tune, but it's an absolutely perfect title and a fitting (albeit brief) tribute.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was created in 1956 to provide electronic music for radio and TV programs, as an alternative to more familiar-sounding orchestral music. Until its demise a decade ago, due to budget cutbacks, it produced a mind-bogglingly huge amount of music, as it sometimes scored over 150 programs annually.

Easily the most popular tune from the Workshop is the Doctor Who theme song, composed by Ron Grainer and realized by Delia Derbyshire with Dick Mills in 1963. This page is fascinating reading, describing the painstaking recording techniques that were employed for the song. Using tone generators, oscillators, and a white noise generator, Derbyshire and Mills would create unusual sounds and record them to tape. Tape loops were made and played back at varying speeds until the desired pitches were obtained, and then recordings of these sounds were spliced together meticulously. Holy cow.

The 1975 compilation album The Radiophonic Workshop provides the second selection this week, a strange and disorienting fanfare from Malcolm Clarke, mixing dubious synthesized praises with clangs and clops of percussion. Those of you lucky enough to get BBC Four on the telly can watch the documentary Alchemists of Sound about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop this Saturday.

By request, the Doris Day tracks are up for one more week:

Monday, May 16, 2005

There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets to

"Brian Wilson, 1960 and Vine, summer kisses
In a Pendleton shirt, songs and gentle words, granted wishes."

One of the most giddily joyful Magnetic Fields songs has to be "You and Me and the Moon," in which Merritt name-checks Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who functions as a sort of shorthand for Those Carefree Summer Days of Our Youth™. The Future Bible Heroes track "Real Summer" references the Beach Boys, but in this case, they are regarded with scorn. Their cheery representation of summer doesn't ring true with the singer, who can't recapture her one real summer, even with a new squeeze and a tall mint julep. The song is so deceptively upbeat that it took me a few listens before I realized that third verse ends with the kiss-off "Summer, my ass."

It seems wholly appropriate that Brian Wilson and Stephin Merritt are now labelmates, each having found a home with Nonesuch Records. While Merritt has frequently expressed his admiration for the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, this article in the Guardian reveals that Brian Wilson is a fan of Merritt's work, as well.

A number of groups - the High Llamas and Saturday Looks Good to Me come immediately to mind - have borrowed elements from the Beach Boys in obvious ways, but the band's influence on Merritt's music is a bit more subtle. I hear similarities between the dense, intricate arrangements on The Wayward Bus and those on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (one of Merritt's favorite albums), particularly on the former's "Dancing in Your Eyes" and "When You Were My Baby." Both acts also have a keen sense of timing, regarding when instruments should enter and depart. Listen to "Dancing in Your Eyes" and "Sloop John B" back to back, and notice when the drums come in and fall out - just perfect. Also, those "DO DO, do DO DO"s that emerge during the last chorus of "When You Were My Baby" sound like those at the one minute mark of "Sloop John B."

"In My Car" from the Magnetic Fields album Holiday may be a tip of the hat to the Beach Boys song "In My Room", since both share the theme of escaping, a theme which was explored further on the album Get Lost.

Monday, May 09, 2005

There's a place on my arm where I've written her name next to mine

"I wrote the song 'Kissing Things' thinking that I would try to get Tom Waits to sing it. Instead I got Sarah Cracknell to sing it, who has more or less the exact opposite voice of Tom Waits. She sounds like a choirboy, whereas Tom Waits sounds like he eats choirboys."

(A quote from Stephin, from an article on

As much as I adore Sarah Cracknell, her almost-cheerful delivery of "Kissing Things" doesn't quite paint a convincing picture of a chain-smoking barfly. Tom Waits, indeed, was born to play such a role. He's a beatnik wannabe born twenty years too late, bellowing songs about alcoholics, criminals, and heartbreak with his distinctively raspy voice. His songs overflow with vivid imagery: snapshots of endearing low-lifes in his early-to-mid work, Bosch-esque apocalyptic landscapes later in his career. Merritt's protagonists have a definite kinship with many of the personalities in Waits's songs - losers, lushes, and the lovelorn. Waits's characters might go to the same bars that Merritt's characters do, but Waits's guys probably beat up Merritt's guys in the back alley.

In a review of Waits's album Mule Variations for Chickfactor, Merritt writes:

Tom Waits as usual sounds like an erudite wino, who finds it so easy to write classic songs that he rarely bothers to do so, pounding on trash cans and singing/shouting short stories like Raymond Carver with repeated choruses. Heard one album, you've heard 'em all, but they're all good. [...] Also he remains one of the best lyricists in this increasingly difficult language...

Waits's musical career takes more directions than I can properly cover with only two songs, so I've picked a narrow focus this week: the piano ballad. This is a genre with which Merritt is quite comfortable - take "Busby Berkeley Dreams," "He Didn't," and "Is This What They Used to Call Love?" for example. One of the tracks this week is appropriate for Mother's Day; the other is not.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Hear them laugh, watch them turn on me

"It was early one morning in someone's flat...I was half-sleeping and I heard this album, which turned out to be [Gary Numan's] Telekon. The melodies were oddly beautiful and had a lot more emotional impact than his influences, such as David Bowie and Kraftwerk. Gary's approach to melody is very interesting because he never over-sings. He also has an amazing way with rhythm, such as using drum machines that sound really old and rundown."

Thus began Merritt's interest in the music of Gary Numan, as recalled by him for a Numan bio written by Steve Malins. Often unfairly written off as a one-hit wonder for his track "Cars," Gary Numan was highly influential in the late 70s and early 80s and helped make the synthesizer an essential instrument in new wave pop. His glam-inspired, make-up wearing image and sinister lyrics were also imitated by more than a few musicians back in the day.

When asked in a Chickfactor interview who the best lyricist in an electropop group was, Merritt replied:

Me. Neil Tennant. Gary Numan's lyrics are underrated. People assume they're science fiction and they're really not usually, and they actually do tend to make sense and a lot of them mean things that are evidently personal to Gary Numan.

These two quotes are particularly interesting, as they counter some misconceptions of Gary Numan: that his songs are emotionless and impenetrable, and that they are mostly sci-fi stories. Well, some of them are sci-fi stories - in the Chickfactor interview, Stephin named "I Dream of Wires" as one: "He's the last electrician alive and there's a completely new technology tantamount to magic, not involving instrumentalities." But a close examination of the lyrics of, say, Telekon reveals a theme not of the future, but of things breaking and crashing.

"I Die: You Die" was covered by the Magnetic Fields and released in 1997 on the Numan tribute double album, Random, which is worth tracking down for that song alone. The arrangement features the banjo and cello prominently, with only a few synthetic accents, and it is every bit as dark and menacing (perhaps more so with Merritt's deep baritone) as the original. Numan's version was released as a single and also on the U.S. release of Telekon, but oddly enough, it was not on that album's original U.K. release. Most likely, you've heard "Cars" scores of times already, but when it starts playing, it's hard to turn it off. Also: listen to that tambourine! Flange! It was cited as Stephin's favorite recording of 1979 in the list. And let's not forget that Mr. Numan contributed vocals to the 6ths song "The Sailor in Love with the Sea" on Hyacinths and Thistles.