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Friday, February 13, 2009

Five Star Flashback: 69 Love Songs (1999)

69 Love Songs (1999)
The Magnetic Fields

Most of the time we try and have these appreciations on an anniversary, and 69 Love Songs came out at the end of 1999. But, I can't think of any better way to celebrate valentines day, than by looking back at one of the greatest albums which deals with love (and all of its mysterious, frustrating, and miraculous glory) ever made.

The album is available wherever you buy your albums/mp3's, or you could buy the album here, from the best record label around (happy 20th Merge!)

Recording Info:

Performed by Stephin Merritt with:
• Claudia Gonson - piano, drums, percussion
• John Woo - banjo, lead guitar, mandolin
• Sam Davol - cello, flute
Stephin Merritt played:
• Voice: Digitech Vocalist, Roland harmonizer, and vocoder.
• Strings: Kamaka Pineapple uke, Harmony baritone uke, Kaholas uke, Admira classical; Yamaha acoustic-electric 12-string; National lap steel; fado guitar; Gibson, Silvertone, Fender, (12-string) Rickenbacker and unmarked electrics; Gibson electric bass. Harmony mandolin; autoharp; Marx Instruments Marxophone, Ukelin, Tremeloa, Violin-Uke; sitar, zither, violin, and musical saw.
• Keyboards: Kurzwell K2000 VX; Prophet 5; EML 101; Roland TB303, Super Jupiter, Juno 106 and Vocoder Plus; Synclavier; Korg MS-10 and Poly-800; ARP Odyssey; Kawai K-1m; Yamaha CS-60 and TG100; Moog Satellite, Ensoniq EPSm, Roland S-50 and S-550. Programmed in Performer. Young Chang and Yamaha pianos, Bilhorn Telescopic Harmonium, Wurlitzer electronic piano, Audition chord organ.
• Rhythm units: Univox; Yamaha RX7 and RX 21; Roland DR660, TR505, TR707, TR727; Select-a-Rhythm; Omnichord; hand-drawn waveforms in Audiomedia.
• Winds: Yamaha and unmarked recorders, ocarinas, pennywhistle, Maestro wind synthesizer, Hohner melodica, Paul Revere jug.
• Drums: Gato rumba box, Cosmic Percussion xylophone, Don Diego and unmarked kalimbas; Radio Shack 75-in-One Project Kit, Gretsch drum kit, Zildjian cymbals, rain stick, chimera, maracas, conga, bongos, triangle, bells, tambourine, MorValu washboard, steel drum, Chicken Shakers, finger cymbals, springs and Slinky guitar, pipes, bamboo harp, spirit chaser, sleighbell, fingersnaps, thunder sheet, cabasas, cowbells, and gong.

Additional musicians:
• Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) - accordion, keyboards
• Chris Ewen - backing tracks

• Stephin Merritt, LD Beghtol, Claudia Gonson, Dudley Klute, Shirley Simms
Produced by Stephin Merritt. Recorded at Polar West, Mother West, Polar Mother and Sonics. Engineering by Stephin Merritt with additional engineering by Charles Newman, Chris Ewen, Claudia Gonson, Eric Masunaga, and Jon Berman. Management by Claudia Gonson. Mastered by Jeff Lipton.

the above video was made my Merritt himself (or at least posted by him, its an Edwin S. Porter Film).

KRCL 90.9 in SLC is probably, and especially considering its degree of difficulty, the best radio station I’ve had the pleasure of listening to; where real actual people played real actual music. I was introduced to this album by the legendary Steve who DJ’d there, and ended up buying the entire box-set shortly after. It’s been one of my favorite albums of all-time; some of the songs I loved from the start, while others have grown on me. It still manages to surprise me on each listen. It’s also one of the rare occasions I actually learned the many of the songs on guitar and can still play a few; I usually don’t like playing other people’s songs.

51. Acoustic Guitar-

Acoustic guitar, I'm gonna make you a star
Get your picture all over the world
Acoustic guitar, you can have your own car
Just bring me back my girl
She always loved the sound of your strum
You made her think maybe I wasn't so dumb
She tends to faint at the sound of a drum cause she's folk
so play and maybe she'll come
Acoustic guitar, how lovely you are
with your inlays of mother of pearl
Be a good guitar and you can go far
Just bring me back my girl
She always said that you were the one
who could make her move
her cute little bum
You understand where she's coming from
which I obviously don't
or she wouldn't be gone
Acoustic guitar, if you think I play hard
well, you could have belonged
to Steve Earle or Charo or Gwar
I could sell you tomorrow
so bring me back my girl
You'd better bring me back my girl

The Magnetic Fields are one of the projects of pop genius Stephin Merritt. The band was already a critical favorite for a series of albums which mixed lo-fi Jesus and Mary Chain style rock with Phil Specter girl group structure. Their song “Born on a Train” is what made Win Butler of the Arcade Fire want to get into music on a more serious level.

[a fanvid]

This is to some extent the greatest piece of post-modern musical theater that never happened, and I’m shocked that it hasn’t materialized into anything of the sort the past 10 years (I outlined a rough film treatment for it years ago). Merritt wanted to create an album of 100 love songs. When he heard a friend playing Sondheim (another genius to whom some have compared Merritt ) on a piano late one night at a gay bar he had an idea of having a performance with 4 voices singing love songs, with the audience deciding the winner (who’d be the one who got paid). This would be an incredible experience, and I can only imagine it’s because Merritt won’t let it happen. The 69 songs have been played entirely in order only on 7 occasions.


What if the show couldn't go on What if we all got jobs
and got to bed before dawn What if Old Joe had to retire
What if all the stage hands were let go or fired
that's just like what the world would be
If you fell out of love with me I can't let this happen to you
don't you let it happen to me What would our friends and family say
if they could only see If you let this happen to us
don't think you'd be setting me free Wasn't it you and I who made
promises of eternity What if the lights didn't go on What if the
velvet curtain had to be taken down What if the clowns couldn't be clowns
and all those painted smiles gave in to plaintive frowns
What if no show ever happened again No Seven, no 8 1/2, no Nine, and no "10"
All numbers and no mystery No promise of eternity...

The project changed, but its ambitions and themes didn’t. Merritt decided to write 69, not 100; though they appear in nearly every musical style, the four vocalists remain, and have titles utilizing every letter of the alphabet. The title of the album is misleading: 69 Love Songs, in that this is not an album really about “love.” In fact, most of the songs are about love gone wrong. But rather songs which are love songs. Merritt is the greatest pop lyricist of his generation, and his talent is showcased brilliantly here as his love songs which should be “love” songs can’t reach the romantic ideal, hampered by the ironies and eccentricities of actuality. It’s funny, heartbreaking, cute, and poignant.


Bang there was you too gold too blue You told the truth.
I cried. You flew. You called me mad (and I am mad) as a hatter
Some fall in love I shatter You make it rain. Too bleak, too stark.
Should night not fall you make things dark... Bang here am I
No one nowhere no ground no sky no light no air...

A rough narrative emerges, though like many concept albums this really doesn’t want to have one per se. Each of the vocalists seem to be trying to get over (or in some cases not get over) a failed relationship where their ex-lover is far away; space, and particular place and place names are quite important to the album.


I don't want to get over you I guess I could take
a sleeping pill and sleep at will and not have to
go through what I go through I guess I should take
Prozac, right, and just smile all night at somebody new
Somebody not too bright but sweet and kind who would
try to get you off my mind I could leave this agony behind
which is just what I'd do if I wanted to but I don't
want to get over you cause I don't want to get over love
I could listen to my therapist, pretend you don't exist
and not have to dream of what I dream of I could listen
to all my friends and go out again and pretend it's enough
or I could make a career of being blue I could dress
in black and read Camus smoke clove cigarettes and drink
vermouth like I was 17 that would be a scream but I
don't want to get over you

This is one of the rare albums, I can only think of a handful of others, where each song is so sonically different that to listen to the album in full is like listening to a variety radio station, yet emotionally and psychologically cohesive because of that difference.

63. Two Kinds of People-

There are two kinds of people:
a) my love and I
b) other
two kinds of people:
1) the gray
and 2) me and my love
All people fall into two camps
that ever twain shall be:
those lost in darkness without lamps,
and then,
my love and me...

And these songs aren’t just different for difference sake. The form/content either undercuts or further melds song styles and lyrical content. And more often than not each song refers to a number of other songs from the history of music. Borrowing from pop/rock, folk (the narrative gender bending is actually an old device from the last century), jazz, and noise music.


Grand pianos crash together when my boy walks down the street There are
whole new kinds of weather when he walks with his new beat Everyone sings
hallelujah when my boy walks down the street Life just kind of dances
through ya from your smile down to your feet Amazing he's a whole new form
of life blue eyes blazing and he's going to be my wife The world does the
hula-hula when my boy walks down the street Everyone thinks he's Petula so
big and yet so petite Butterflies turn into people when my boy walks down
the street Maybe he should be illegal he just makes life too complete...
Oh, shadows of echoes of memories Oh, things that he brings that he found in the sea Oh, shadows of echoes of memories of songs Oh, how could he know that it won't be long...

The Album has its own wiki, as well as two companion books (three really, if you count the rather extensive liner notes in the box-set) 69 Love Songs: A Field Guide and this one here. And as you can see there are a substantial amount of fanvids to these songs on youtube.

[a fanvid]

My 14 Favorite of the Love Songs
1. Acoustic Guitar
2. Busby Berkeley Dreams
3. My Sentimental Melody
4. The Luckiest Guy (On the Lower East Side)
[a fanvid]
5. Epitaph for my Heart
6. My Only Friend
7. I Think I need a New Heart
8. Papa was a Rodeo
9. Washington DC
10. Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing
11. It’s a Crime
12. Long Forgotten Fairytale
13. Grand Canyon
14. No One Will Ever Love You