Monday, July 25, 2005

I am going to play it back into the room again and again

Daniel Handler: Well, onto "Experimental Music Love." Tell me exactly what you did there. It sounds like early Steve Reich stuff to me, "Come Out" and "It's Gonna Rain." Is that what you did here?
Stephin Merritt: No. It's just fifteen tape bounces from the first track, with a certain delay each time, a tenth of a second. In headphones it's pretty difficult.

I, too, initially thought that "Experimental Music Love" was an homage to Reich's early tape pieces (an MP3 of "Come Out" is available here). One writer suggested in an article in the Independent (thanks to David Jennings for the tip) that "'Experimental Music Love' is the love song that the avant-garde composer Alvin Lucier never wrote." I think we're getting warmer.

American composer Alvin Lucier has created, since the 50s, experimental music that often deals with the possibilities of resonance. Some of his pieces involve vibrating wires, hand-held echolocations devices, an amplified teapot, pure wave oscillators, and even "enormously amplified brain waves". In this interview, Lucier discusses his fascination with echoes and his piece from 1968, Vespers, " which players really make sounds that echo off ceilings, walls, floors." But while Lucier's works frequently involve natural acoustics, the bouncing in Merritt's "Experimental Music Love" was most likely created with computer technology - that's okay, since we should expect artificiality from Merritt (and take note that Lucier has explored digital effects and sampling as well.)

On the list, Merritt includes "I am sitting in a room" as his selection for 1970, a track which is possibly Lucier's best-known work. The process is simple: record several sentences of speech (which happen to describe the piece itself) onto tape in a room, play that back while recording it onto another tape in the same room, and then repeat the process until the original words (and his stuttering) are unrecognizable and the room's resonant frequencies emerge as the prominent sounds in the final recording. The first sound file is a fragment from the 40 minute version recorded in 1980, containing the entire monologue in its unaltered form. The second file (21 MB!) is a 15 minute version from 1969, taken from the magazine/record SOURCE: Music of the Avant Garde.

Alvin Lucier - "I am sitting in a room" (fragment, 1980)
Alvin Lucier - "I am sitting in a room" (complete, 1969)

Monday, July 18, 2005

Knife to my head when she talks so sweetly

Continuing last week's discussion of "When My Boy Walks Down the Street," in the 69 Love Songs interview booklet, Stephin said that he intended the song to sound like the Three O'Clock. However, he admitted that it sounds more like the Jesus and Mary Chain, the glorious Scottish outfit known for their treble-heavy pop songs with piercing feedback, overdistorted guitars, and primitive drumbeats. The band centered around the brothers William and Jim Reid, and their debut single "Upside Down" from 1984 (available on the recommended compilation Barbed Wire Kisses), with its abrasive guitar sound bordering on white noise, was one hell of an entrance. Their first album, Psychocandy (cited on the list) is an undisputed classic with fourteen tracks following the style of "Upside Down." They toned down their approach for later efforts, leaving out the feedback, with mixed results, before breaking up in 1999.

In an interview with Elisabeth Vincentelli, Merritt said:
"I'm continually irritated by every record having the same production idea -- false realism. The only record of the last ten years that isn't trying to sound 'live' or 'real' (in an idealized form, since no recording is actually live) is the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy."

Like Merritt, the Reid brothers admired particular 60s music figures like Phil Spector (his "Be My Baby" drumbeat was borrowed for three different songs on Psychocandy) and the Velvet Underground, whose White Light/White Heat album is a good point of reference. Looking through Merritt's songs in guitar tab form, one sees that he often embraces three-chord simplicity, an aesthetic to which the Jesus and Mary Chain also subscribe.

In this amusing anecdote, Merritt states (in his typically droll manner) "We disapprove of rock and Christianity, especially in combination." He also believes, as revealed in this article in the Advocate, that rock died twenty years ago with the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy. Regarding a performance he witnessed in 1986, Merritt wrote in a Time Out New York article: "It was the last time anything new was going to happen in rock as such, and everyone knew it."

Despite the anti-rock stance, I'd say the Magnetic Fields did have a few rock songs. Well, two come to mind: "I'm Sorry I Love You," with its Bo Diddley rhythm, and the unrelenting loop song, "Famous." This week's first selection from Psychocandy is "Inside Me," a tune which bears several similarities to "Famous" with its noisy guitar washes and identical drum pattern. "Taste of Cindy" is a track that is essentially a bubblegum pop song, with blankets of fuzz attempting to subvert that notion.

The Jesus and Mary Chain - "Inside Me"
The Jesus and Mary Chain - "Taste of Cindy"

Monday, July 11, 2005

Shadows of echoes of memories of songs

Merritt: ["When My Boy Walks Down the Street"] was supposed to be like the Three O'Clock but it didn't turn out at all like the Three O'Clock.
Handler: I'll say.

(from the 69 Love Songs interview booklet)

With its ringing guitars and cutesy, wide-eyed (with dilated pupils) lyrics like "Butterflies turn into people" (and "Maybe he should be illegal" surely being a drug reference), "When My Boy Walks Down the Street" was intended to be a tribute to the bands of the Paisley Underground. These groups were based in California in the early/mid 80s and reflected a reverence toward the pop sounds of the 60s with a touch of psychedelia. Perhaps the groups that epitomized the Paisley Underground sound the most were the Three O'Clock, the Bangles, the Dream Syndicate, and the Rain Parade.

In Chickfactor #10, Claudia talked about obtaining a fake ID, along with Stephin, in order to catch a performance by Game Theory, a band that fell in with the Paisley set: "For one glorious year, we got in to see all our favorite neopsychedelic bands like Game Theory, the Bangles, and the Three O'Clock. I adored them." And in Caught in Flux #3, she explained how in her teens, Stephin helped " teach me the difference between Rainy Day, the Rain Parade and the Raincoats."

The fey, gender-neutral singer Michael Quercio came up with the term "Paisley Underground," and his band the Three O'Clock is considered to be the quintessential Paisley group. However, if there is a meta-Paisley album, it definitely has to be Rainy Day, a sort of studio party album full of 60s and early 70s cover songs. Several major Paisley Underground figures are on it: Michael Quercio, David Roback (the Rain Parade, Opal, Mazzy Star), Kendra Smith (Opal, the Dream Syndicate), and even Susanna Hoffs from the Bangles. It has been out of print for ages and is in dire need of a re-issue, so this week I'll feature two songs from it. "I'll Keep It with Mine" (vocals by Susanna Hoffs) was originally tackled by Nico on her debut album (see last week's entry) and allegedly written for her by Bob Dylan, while "Flying on the Ground Is Wrong" (vocals by Kendra Smith) was a Buffalo Springfield song written by Neil Young.

The Three O'Clock - "Jet Fighter"
Rainy Day - "I'll Keep It with Mine"
Rainy Day - "Flying on the Ground Is Wrong"

Monday, July 04, 2005

Her future died in someone's past

You couldn't have invented a more perfect cult icon - a model, singer, actress, and goth precursor, Nico had a fascinating life that intersected paths with a number of equally fascinating people. She had her initial glimpse of fame as a supermodel in Europe; her face was unmistakable and unforgettable - eerily skeletal, often with a blank, piercing stare. In the film world, she had a minor role in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, worked with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey in their film Chelsea Girls, and also had a child with the French actor Alain Delon.

Merritt had listed Nico's debut album Chelsea Girl in Chickfactor as being one of his favorite albums, and one can see how he would be attracted to its nimble string arrangements and gloomy subjects. But much of the appeal (or distaste, for its detractors) of the album is due to Nico's vocals. English was a second language to Nico, who was born in Cologne, Germany, and this is immediately apparent in her husky voice - a voice which whimsically fell in and out of tune and was completely free of vibrato. For his band the 6ths, Merritt takes pleasure in utilizing vocalists for whom English is a second language: Dominique A, Ayako Akashiba, and Miho Hatori. In fact, he's even mentioned that he (perhaps sadistically) gives songs to Japanese singers that have lots of Ls in them on purpose, like "Winter in July" or "Lindy-Lou."

I had previously suggested that the Magnetic Fields' cover of "Heroes" was also somewhat of a tribute to Nico. She, too, had covered the song, and she had perceived the song to be about Bowie fantasizing about kissing her beneath the Berlin Wall:

"Heroes" was written for me. I know that as a fact. I was living in Berlin at the same time as Bowie was there. He recaptured my past, I guess. I can hear it from the lines 'Standing by the wall, the gun shots above our heads and we kissed.' That didn't happen of course. That was his fantasy.

(The generally accepted story for the song's inspiration, however, is that Bowie had witnessed two lovers standing by the wall, but this page offers two additional explanations.)

In the 6ths track "Yet Another Girl," Merritt namechecks the Chelsea Hotel (featured in the forementioned film Chelsea Girls) and even calls the sun a "Chelsea Girl" in the song "Amnesia" (a song that has only been performed live, to the best of my knowledge.) And finally, the Three Terrors performed a cover of "Chelsea Girls" live, so I would be remiss to not feature that song this week. Nico sang lead vocals on three tracks on the debut album by the Velvet Underground (the 1966 entry on the list), while VU members Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison co-wrote and performed on several songs on Chelsea Girl. The three most listener-friendly tracks on Chelsea Girl, however, were written by Jackson Browne, Nico's squeeze at the time: the oft-covered "These Days," the sublime "The Fairest of the Seasons," and this week's second selection, "Somewhere There's a Feather."

Nico - "Chelsea Girls"
Nico - "Somewhere There's a Feather"