Monday, August 29, 2005

Things you had forgotten, things that couldn't last

In this remembrance, Claudia Gonson explains how Merritt profoundly influenced her musical tastes in the early 80s and how they loved music from the early days of Rough Trade. Rough Trade began as a shop in 1976, and two years later, Rough Trade - the record label - was spawned; the shop and the label separated into two distinct entities in 1982. The discography of Rough Trade Records is sprawling, eclectic, and frequently mind-blowing. It was home to several bands mentioned previously here, including Young Marble Giants, Rainy Day, the Dream Syndicate, and Opal, and several 6ths singers had releases on Rough Trade, like Robert Scott (with the Clean and the Bats) and Dean Wareham (with Galaxie 500). Merritt has expressed his appreciation for several Rough Trade artists, including Morrissey (of the Smiths, of course), Mayo Thompson and the Red Crayola, the Raincoats, and Weekend.

After Young Marble Giants disbanded in 1981, main songwriter Stuart Moxham formed the Gist while singer Alison Statton teamed up with guitarist and fellow Cardiffian Simon Booth to form Weekend. Soon after, they were joined by Spike, on guitar and viola, and the outfit recorded three singles and an album (plus a live mini-album) for Rough Trade during their brief career together. Upon listening to this week's selections, it's immediately apparent that Weekend sounds nothing like Young Marble Giants, as Weekend uses a breezy jazzy approach with layers of nylon-stringed guitars, saxes, and strings.

Alison describes the band's sources in this article excerpt from 1982 in Sounds:
"...we have three different influences coming through, I'm still very into folk music and ballads, as I was in the Giants (though now I'm playing bass too), whereas Simon's into the jazz thing and Spike's off on a tangent all his own."

Simon explains, in the same article, that while he worked in a London jazz shop, he cultivated an appreciation for jazz from the be-bop era of the 50s. This may be true, but the pop jazz that Weekend plays reminds me more of the laid-back Brazilian bossa nova of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto, rather than 50s be-bop.

With one of the most gorgeous guitar intros ever, "The End of the Affair" begins La Varieté, the sole (proper) album by Weekend and one of Merritt's favorites. Thanks to Vinyl Japan, if you buy their re-issue of La Varieté (which includes the '81 Demos EP) along with the singles/live compilation Archive, then you have nearly everything. "Drumbeat for Baby," another track off La Varieté, is presented here with its slightly longer 12" version, which is available on Archive.

Now, if you will, take a look at the cover of Archive (which was originally the cover of the "Past Meets Present" 7" single). Look familiar? The watercolor painting was made by Wendy Smith, who also created the cover art for...Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus by the Magnetic Fields. Smith is also responsible for the cover of La Varieté and the photo on the cover of Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants.

Weekend - "The End of the Affair"
Weekend - "Drumbeat for Baby"

Monday, August 22, 2005

Staring at the ceiling, wishing she was somewhere else instead

69 Love Songs is chock full of ersatz genre pieces - some resemblances and hints are there, but seldom does a song on it convey any sincere claim to authenticity. One might think that "World Love" would attempt to blend all non-American/European musical styles, but instead it ends up sounding like something off Paul Simon's Graceland. "Punk Love" uses the familiar Ramones chord progression and the vocals have a bratty snarl to them, but other than that, it sounds little like punk. It's about as genuine as a chimpy-sounding Casio keyboard rhythm/accompaniment preset. Mind you, these aren't complaints - it's apparent that Merritt did this all intentionally, and it's another side of his love for artificiality. So, what happens when he makes an (off-kilter) imitation of an imitation? You get "It's a Crime."

Stephin Merritt: I think of it as that small genre of Swedish reggae. Ace Of Base have done reggae, sort of reggae, ABBA has done sort of reggae. I'm sure a-ha have, but I don't remember.
Daniel Handler: I'll ask my wife. She's a big a-ha fan.

ABBA have dabbled in various genres - "Fernando" and "Chiquitita" both have Latin touches, and "Ring Ring" and "Dance (While the Music Still Goes On)" are tributes to Phil Spector's girl group pop - but perhaps their most unexpected genre choice is reggae. "Tropical Loveland" is a cute trifle - the drums and guitar utilize the standard reggae rhythms, sure, but the song is incredibly white bread. It's too clean and not sweaty enough to be authentic, but that's hardly the point - ABBA are in the pop business. Six years later, they used a vaguely reggae beat for their track "One of Us," which seemed to serve as a prototype for the career of Ace Of Base.

Also, I should point out that when it was performed live, "It's a Crime" had a Motown-esque chorus of backing singers. Swedish reggae, Motown soul,, that is so freakin' meta.

ABBA - "Tropical Loveland"
ABBA - "One of Us"

Monday, August 15, 2005

Fling them from the top of the Brill Building

The Brill Building, referenced in "Epitaph for My Heart," was a one-stop pop song factory, located at 1619 Broadway in New York City. In the building during its heyday, in the late 50s and early 60s, you could obtain a freshly written song, have it arranged, assemble studio musicians and singers, record a demo, and then try to sell it to various record companies, all without stepping outside. At its wall-busting peak, it housed 165 music businesses.

This sort of division of labor may not sit right with modern audiences, but it's unreasonable to demand that songwriters also be musicians and singers, not to mention models. Merritt has stated that he despises touring (their tours are referred to as "tourettes"), and his band the 6ths demonstrates his desire to be known, first and foremost, as a songwriter by having other people sing his songs. Several of his recordings from the last half dozen years don't even feature Merritt as a musician or singer, like "Acoustic Guitar" and "Waltzing Me All the Way Home."

The Onion: Then how do you actually go about writing Stephin Merritt songs? Do you consider yourself primarily a lyricist?
Merritt: I suppose I consider myself primarily a songwriter. I'm involved with both lyrics and music, intertwined, usually. The lyrics are about the same thing the music is about, usually. They comment on each other, and if I wrote one without the other, like I did on the Future Bible Heroes record [Memories of Love], it wouldn't mean the same thing. Which it doesn't on the Future Bible Heroes record.

The Onion: Do you prefer to sing yourself, or have other people sing?
Merritt: I prefer to have other people sing, because it's a lot easier to judge how well they're doing. Everybody hates the sound of their own voice when it's played back.

69 Love Songs itself seems to be, also, a tribute to the industrialized songwriting process. It's self-consciously packaged like a generic product, using the most bland font of them all, Courier, and the title also brings to mind other store-bought products, like a box of 64 Crayola™ crayons or maybe even 2000 Flushes™.

Including the Bacharach/David duo (featured last week), the Brill Building was associated with several prominent songwriting teams, among them Carole King/Gerry Goffin, Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil. Wall-of-sound producer Phil Spector made many Brill Building songs into hits, and all three songs this week are Spector productions from the highly recommended Back to Mono boxed set. "I Love How You Love Me" written by Barry Mann and Larry Kolber, Merritt's entry for 1961 on the list, sounds innocent upon first listen, but a second listen will put a knowing grin on your face if you have an unclean mind like mine. On the other hand, "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" (a Goffin/King composition) is not at all subtle, and it's actually quite disturbing - the Three Terrors covered it for one of their performances. And finally, one of the most glorious moments in pop music is "Be My Baby" (penned by Barry/Greenwich), which has an unforgettable drum intro that was borrowed for countless other songs, including the Magnetic Fields track "Candy."

The Paris Sisters - "I Love How You Love Me"
The Crystals - "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)"
The Ronettes - "Be My Baby"

Monday, August 08, 2005

You get enough germs to catch pneumonia

It's unfortunate that most of the younger set probably know Dionne Warwick best as the shameless shill for the ($3.99 a minute) Psychic Friends Network, formerly a late-night infomercial staple. Burt Bacharach, who has made cameos in the Austin Powers movies and collaborated with Elvis Costello, fares much better among youngsters in reputation and recognition. But who remembers Hal David, who completed the once unstoppable pop trio? Poor Hal.

Burt Bacharach (composer), Hal David (lyricist), and Dionne Warwick (singer) had their best success when working together in the 60s, with an incredible string of twenty Top 40 hits over a decade's span. These songs alone would guarantee the Bacharach/David songwriting duo a spot in heaven, but they also penned a number of hits for other artists, among them "The Look of Love" (Dusty Springfield), "(They Long to Be) Close to You" (the Carpenters), and "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" (B. J. Thomas). The pair met while working in the Brill Building in New York City and started collaborating in 1957, and Warwick joined the team in 1962. Bacharach's arrangements are both breezy and sophisticated, doling out just the right amount of hooks and unshakable melodies. David's lyrics alternate between pathos and (often naïve) optimism, sometimes within the same song, and Warwick sings with a sweet pop voice that can turn on the moxie on demand.

"Walk on By" (Stephin's selection for 1964 on the list) is a gently devastating broken-hearted song, with a simple and perfect weeping piano break, mirroring the singer's tears. Astute Merritt fans will recognize the title "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" being quoted for the final line of "Summer Lies" on The Wayward Bus, and also I should point out that the Three Terrors performed a cover of the theme song for the film The Blob (written by Bacharach and Mack David, Hal's older brother) as part of their "The Three Terrors Go Hollywood" performance in 2001. The Dionne Warwick collection on Rhino Records (Her All-Time Greatest Hits) was listed by Stephin as one of his favorites in Chickfactor #6, and with twenty-four solid tracks (twenty-three of them being Bacharach/David compositions from 1962 to 1970), that compilation is the one to get. The three-disc Bacharach boxed set The Look of Love has a lot of high points, but there's a tendency on that collection to include the hit recordings, instead of the superior renditions. (Herb Alpert really shouldn't be allowed to sing, even if he owns the damn record company.)

Dionne Warwick - "Walk on By"
Dionne Warwick - "I'll Never Fall in Love Again"

By request, "They Were You" is back up for another week:

"They Were You" from the Fantasticks

Monday, August 01, 2005

Oh married girl, she rocks the cradle and cries

Daniel Handler: We move to "The One You Really Love" in which you and LD are a sort of traveling yodelling cowpoke duo.
Stephin Merritt: We're the Carter Family. I borrowed Brian Dewan's autoharp for several of the songs, chiefly this one, to be more like the Carter Family...

The most influential outfit for both country and bluegrass music, the Carter Family has a wide-ranging legacy that has inspired many folk and rock artists, too. The trio of A. P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle formed the original incarnation of the Carter Family back in 1926, although A. P. and Sara had been performing together for years. The Carter Family songbook (including staples "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Wildwood Flower") was mostly assembled from tunes and lyrics that A. P. had gathered throughout Appalachia, and in a shrewd move, he even obtained copyrights for his arrangements of those songs. Sara would sing and play the autoharp, A. P. would also sing, and Maybelle would play the guitar; Maybelle's style, which involved picking bass notes while strumming treble chords, with the familiar "BOOM chick-uh BOOM chick-uh" rhythm, was often imitated.

"Single Girl, Married Girl" was recorded in Bristol, Tennessee back in 1927, as part of the first ever recording session for the band. The group's popularity grew, despite the Great Depression, with recording contracts with Victor, ARC, and Decca Records, in that order. They were aided by certain radio stations that were located in Mexico, just across the border; unhindered by American broadcasting laws, they transmitted Carter Family songs with ridiculously high wattages, allowing them to be heard across the Midwest and beyond. Three of their songs, including the two tracks featured this week, enjoyed new life on the essential Smithsonian/Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith in 1952 and re-issued on CD in 1997. This compilation was cited on the list and was mentioned by Merritt as being a representative musical document of the 20th century, in addition to "any Carter Family compilation."

Legend has it that A. P. met Sara for the first time when she was on her porch, playing the autoharp and singing the song "Engine 143," a grim ballad about an overzealous engineer who didn't understand the concept of "work/life balance." Though "The One You Really Love" channels Merritt's appreciation for the Carter Family the most, their influence can be felt indirectly on the country music/railroad obsessed album The Charm of the Highway Strip and tracks like "Tar-Heel Boy" and the Susan-sings version of "Plant White Roses."

The Carter Family - "Single Girl, Married Girl"
The Carter Family - "Engine 143"