Y'know, indie rock has such an expansive background, covering so many
different musical territories, so many bands, and so many names, you
couldn't learn them all in a lifetime, even if people stopped putting
out new stuff tomorrow. And that's a goddamn pain in the ass, 'cause
while you're worried about keeping up with all the crap, you miss the
most important stuff without ever realizing it.
Such is the case with the Magnetic Fields. Until I made a conscious
effort to pursue their music, they were just another band in a sea of
bands (albeit one with a cool name). Then, tipped off by staff writer
and Pal of the Ages Jason Josephes (and, I have to admit, a raving entry
in Spin's "Alternative Record Guide"), I went out and purchased a copy
of Charm of the Highway Strip. It turned out to be one of the
most brilliant pop records I own... and I own a lot of brilliant pop
In anticipation of the band's forthcoming three- disc box set of
brand new music-- the aptly titled 69 Love Songs, due out
later this year-- Merge has reissued two classic Magnetic Fields
records, The House of Tomorrow EP, and what some folks consider
to be the band's classic, 1993's Holiday.
So what's it sound like? Well, that's where it gets fun. The
Magnetic Fields is-- except when touring-- almost solely frontman
Stephin Merritt's project. Merritt's instrumentation is comprised
only of a closetful of early Casio, Yamaha and other keyboards, which
he layers over one another, capturing a completely original sound. The
music is tinny, quirky, and pre-programmed to the core, while Merritt's
vocals are unusually deep-- like a more elegant Calvin Johnson.
Holiday is definitely an inspired record-- the melodies are
poppy as hell, in Merritt's trademark Pet Shop Boys kinda way.
Songs like the slowed- down dance machine groove of "In My Secret
Place," the eloquent "The Flowers She Sent and the Flowers She Said
She Sent," and the amazing closer, "Take Ecstacy With Me" are
chunky pieces of catchy, glowing pop that stick in your head like
the gooey clumps of bubblegum they are.
Luckily, though, on both 1994's Charm of the Highway Strip and
1995's Get Lost, Merritt seems to have advanced in the lyrics
department. I mean, sure, the guy's still sappy as hell, but
that's all part of his appeal. Holiday, however, is
Merritt in Super Sappy Mode, with overly saccharine lyrics like,
"Our lips blue from cotton candy/ When we kiss it feels like a
flying saucer landing." The great thing about Merritt's lyrics,
though, is that he sometimes surprises with lines of striking
genius-- the line preceding the aforementioned lyric is, "On the
ferris wheel/ Looking out on Coney Island/ Under more stars than/
There are prostitutes in Thailand."
But even while the Magnetic Fields' records flounder lyrically,
you'll be preoccupied paying attention to the layers upon layers of
intricate keyboards and drum machines, and the band's shockingly
memorable melodies. I'm still sticking with Charm of the Highway
Strip for the band's best record. But if you've already
heard that one and you find yourself in need of a new sugar fix,
by all means, pick up Holiday.