Monday, November 28, 2005

Sing me the kind of song you hear in an operetta

The work of Victorian era duo Gilbert and Sullivan (lyricist/stagewriter William S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan) served as the inspiration for two songs by the Magnetic Fields: the harpsichord-bound "For We Are the King of the Boudoir" and "In an Operetta." Together, the pair created comic operas which often demonstrated "topsy-turvydom," the ever-present state of wacky complications and the mingling of diverse characters from varied backgrounds (hence, the name of the Mike Leigh film Topsy-Turvy, about the production of The Mikado.) Written over a century ago, their operettas continue to be performed today, including their three most famous ones, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado and serve as influential precursors to the modern stage musical. Now, Merritt sings of an operetta, and perhaps a little definition is in order. An operetta is kind of like opera lite, typically light-hearted and comedic, and not all of the words are necessarily sung; players are usually selected for their singing abilities rather than their acting abilities. A musical, however, tends to be more like a play that is interspersed with songs, therefore acting takes a greater importance.

On first listen, "In an Operetta" might seem like a trifle, but it's actually quite a clever song with several literary and musical references, twisted around into a sort of meta-Victorian plot. First off, Violetta is the main character in Verdi's opera La Traviata, first performed in 1853, a tragic story about a courtesan who faces disapproval when she falls in love with an aristocrat. The "cross-dressing female sailor" plot line was used in traditional Irish seafaring songs, and the most popular one, "The Handsome Cabin Boy," was covered by Kate Bush, Frank Zappa, and Jerry Garcia, among others. The protagonist of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, first serialized in the early 1860s, is an orphan named Pip, and the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance is centered around a band of orphaned pirates who are softies at heart.

Richard D'Oyly Carte was an important figure in the professional life of Gilbert and Sullivan, as he produced most of their operettas and built London's Savoy Theatre in 1881 for performances of their works. His D'Oyly Carte Opera Company is still around today, although they have ceased productions since May of 2003, waiting for better economic conditions. This week, two tracks performed by the Company are featured: "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore" from the nautical love story H.M.S. Pinafore and the spooky "When the Night Wind Howls" from the "supernatural opera" Ruddigore.

The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company - "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore"
The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company - "When the Night Wind Howls"

Monday, November 21, 2005

Life is more than going to see things, and that's too bad

In an interview with Merritt in The Independent, he mentions two concerts that each made a lasting impression upon him - one was seeing Einstürzende Neubauten perform their first NY show in 1984, and the other was a set by the falsetto-voiced ukulele player, Tiny Tim. Merritt said, "Both were life-changing shows, although for opposite aesthetics."

Formed in West Berlin in 1980, Einstürzende Neubauten pushed music to the limits of listenability with its cacophony of guitar noise, power tools used as musical instruments, and rhythms banged out on pieces of metal. Their live shows were legendary for being utterly chaotic, and Merritt wrote the following for Time Out New York about the concert he witnessed:

"...Einstürzende Neubauten, the German difficult-listening group that ruined my hearing 15 years ago (and left me with spark burns on my neck for weeks); the construction-site-as-music-ensemble is so loud without amplification that no one could tell when Danceteria turned off the sound system; the band that commanded its followers to 'listen with pain' and destroyed whatever stage it played on with buzz saws and jackhammers; the group whose name means 'collapsing new buildings,' which perfectly describes its sound."

It's plain to see why Merritt would be drawn to Tiny Tim, as both are avid ukulele players and have a commanding knowledge of early American pop music. With his thick, six-foot frame, unruly long hair, and high singing voice, Tiny Tim was often dismissed as merely a kitschy novelty, but his love for late 19th century/early 20th century music was completely sincere. The Allmusic biography for Tiny Tim says, "...he was an avid collector of 78 rpm records and sheet music, and often scoured the New York Public Library's musical archives for material." Gaining a modest amount of recognition in the Greenwich Village scene in the early 60s, his big break came with an appearance on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, and soon he became a television variety/talk show staple. Some attribute the birth of trash/tabloid TV to a single event in 1969: his televised marriage on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to his girlfriend, Miss Vicki.

In Chickfactor #11, Merritt recalled the forementioned Tiny Tim show:

"Tiny Tim did a show at the Rathskeller in Boston in the late '80s with five band members and five audience members, he played for two hours. Mr. Tim would play the same three chords on his ukulele for 15 minutes, so the band could easily play along (they'd never rehearsed), and trill in falsetto every standard he could think of with those chords, from 1880s Stephen Foster to 1970s Donna Summer. After a while he'd change one of the chords and go off on a new set of songs, never stopping for applause. His enthusiasm for songs of the early 20th century was really touching, and of course he was such a freakish person and so adrift in time, that by the end all eleven of us were blubbering and sobbing along with 'Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me.'"

Einstürzende Neubauten - "Krieg in Den Städten"
Tiny Tim - "Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips with Me / On the Good Ship Lollipop" (live)

Monday, November 07, 2005

Love, you're such a sweet thing, good enough to eat thing

Merritt: The only genre that I can say I love is bubblegum - but I can say that because I feel free to define what is and what isn't bubblegum: Ramones, Kraftwerk, Abba, the Troggs. I'd like to have a bubblegum store.
Raygun Magazine: You could call it blow pop. [Merritt doesn't laugh.] Define the bubblegum aesthetic.
Merritt: Celebration of simplicity of form, lack of high art intentions and brevity.

The popular conception of bubblegum is disposable, sing-songy pop music churned out by faceless musicians and marketed to prepubescents (and this is certainly true in many cases), but Merritt's own definition distills what really makes bubblegum pop's best moments so memorable. Keep it short and simple (three chords, verse/chorus/verse/chorus/chorus), and make it insanely catchy.

According to Merritt, the cheerleader chant that begins the Magnetic Fields track "Washington, D.C." was intended to channel the Bay City Rollers' track "Saturday Night." The Bay City Rollers were a Scottish, tartan-wearing teen sensation, perhaps a prototype for boy bands, and Merritt told Chickfactor that they were the first band he saw in concert "by choice."

The Ohio Express had a brief existence during the early part of the classic bubblegum period (late 60s to early 70s), and as cited by Claudia Gonson for Caught in Flux, Stephin was a fan. The producer duo of Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz were the masterminds behind the outfit, along with another successful bubblegum group, 1910 Fruitgum Co. Their arrangement was an odd one (and I highly recommend the book Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth for more), as their first hit was not even performed by them - it was the track "Beg, Borrow & Steal" by the Rare Breed (available on the Nuggets compilation) simply re-released. To clarify: it was the same exact recording, not a cover, released again under the Ohio Express name. While the band was out performing and making appearances, studio artists would create their new songs, including their biggest hit, "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy."

Responsible for fifteen top-40 hits in a five year run, Tommy James is best known for his work with the Shondells, including songs like "Mony Mony" and the dumb garage rock of "Hanky Panky." But, it's his pure pop like "I Think We're Alone Now" that earned him a spot in the bubblegum hall of fame. His track "Crimson and Clover," a chart topper, slowed down the pop formula and used wah-wah guitar and a tremolo vocal effect for a psychedelic feel. Regarding the vibrato guitar on the Magnetic Fields track "All My Little Words," Merritt said:

I took great pains to get the vibrato almost at tempo but not quite. I've always liked "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells, where the vibrato - "crimson and clo-o-o-ver, over and o-o-o-ver" - is not quite in time. I think it's supposed to be in time.

When asked to select "the perfect song" for NPR's All Songs Considered, Merritt's pick was "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies, a song for which I couldn't imagine a single note being in a different place. Merritt writes:

This laidback three-chord anthem full of sweet double entendres and soulful hand-clapping enthusiasm is recorded with minimal guitar and maximal two-finger Farfisa organ. The pinnacle of bubblegum music, if not pop itself, S.S. was performed by cartoon characters on a Saturday morning television show, and went to #1 with no band to back it up on the road.

The Bay City Rollers - "Saturday Night"
The Ohio Express - "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy"
Tommy James and the Shondells - "Crimson and Clover"
The Archies - "Sugar, Sugar"

Stephinsources will return on November 21.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

When we go dancing underneath the city in the catacombs

Rob Levy: What is your songwriting process? Do you set aside specific time to write, or does it just come in bursts of creativity?
Merritt: I sit around in gay bars with a pencil in one hand and a drink in the other, my little black notebook in my lap, listening to thumping disco music and eavesdropping.

(from Playback St. Louis)

Stephin speaks fondly of various dance clubs from his younger days in Chickfactor #11, and although loud throbbing dance music was probably responsible for much of his hearing loss, it serves an essential role in his songwriting. Though Merritt is primarily a pop songwriter, dance rhythms are used in various tracks, from "The Desperate Things You Made Me Do" to "You Can't Break a Broken Heart," and a handful of Merritt tunes have been remixed for dancefloor action, including "Hopeless," "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend," and several tracks on The Lonely Robot.

Merritt's pick for 1987 on the list is by an outfit which has the unique distinction of being a one-hit wonder and also being hugely influential in the dance world. M/A/R/R/S was a collaboration between two bands on the 4AD label, Colourbox and A.R.Kane, around the time when American house music was arriving in British clubs. The driving track, "Pump Up The Volume," was considered the first house hit made in Britain, and it inspired, for better or for worse, numerous sample-heavy dance tracks for the next few years, bringing sampling from hip-hop circles out into the mainstream. In the 4AD catalog, the song is considered a bit of an anomaly, as the label's early-to-mid 80s output gravitated toward the gloomy and dark.

One enduring band that joined 4AD's fold during the early 80s was Cocteau Twins, who are responsible, more than anyone else, for the popular conception of "the 4AD sound": a sort of structured ambience, using chorus-laden guitars and synthetics. This pigeonholing is unfair to the majority of 4AD bands who sound nothing like Cocteau Twins, but on the other hand, you can always spot an Ivo production (Ivo Watts-Russell being the label's founder) a mile away. The Twins' third album Treasure is oozing with artificiality, which Merritt would undoubtedly appreciate - it's his selection for 1984 on the list. The drum machine, the guitar effects, and the synth flourishes are all distinctly unnatural sounding, and even the non-language in which Elizabeth Fraser sings is of her own invention. And that voice...Fraser is simply one of the most amazing singers around, capable of making astoundingly beautiful sounds.

November is a big month for 4AD, as they celebrate the 25th anniversary of the label with ten nights of performances in London and the releases of a retrospective label compilation and a Cocteau Twins boxed set.

M/A/R/R/S - "Pump Up The Volume"
Cocteau Twins - "Lorelei"

(sorry, again, for the delay!)