Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Magnetic Fields - "69 Love Songs" (LP Review)

It has taken me a while to get my head around just how remarkable "69 Love Songs" is, but the iTunes play count doesn't lie.  I've wanted to review it for a while but I've been intimidated by its scale.  Released in 1999, "69 Love Songs" is a triple LP from NPR-indie-rockers The Magnetic Fields.  I'm not sure "NPR-indie-rockers" is a legitimate music genre, but think of it is as 80s college radio all grown up with kids and a mortgage. 

"69 Love Songs" is, at first blush, a relatively simple concept LP: literally 69 songs about love.  No big deal, right? -- most songs you hear every day are about love in one way or another.  But this isn't really 69 songs celebrating love, this is 69 songs celebrating love songs.  A love song to love songs, if you will.   In fact, the entire LP can be summarized with these lines from the song "The Book of Love":
The book of love has music in it
In fact, that's where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb
Although TMF is a band with a relatively stable lineup, Stephin Merritt is the unquestioned leader, primary lead singer,  and sole songwriter for TMF.  This LP is his "book of love", covering the entire spectrum from "transcendental" to "really dumb".  Every imaginable aspect of romantic love is covered (gay, straight, unrequited, celebration, prurient, mature, etc.), along with a full range of musical styles (Celtic, world, folk, country, punk, jazz, electronic, surf rock, and surely other sub-genres that I'm forgetting).  Doing a cross product of "types of love" and "types of music" is how you get to a triple LP with 69 songs.  When you begin to appreciate the ambition and scale of the project, you wonder how he can fit it in only 69 songs.

Ok, so Merritt wrote a lot of love songs... what makes this collection work is that Merritt is a wickedly clever lyricist and songwriter (I will not spoil the several laugh-out-loud gems sprinkled throughout the LPs).  This simple concept would not work in the hands of someone less expert, in which case the songs would be closer to parody than celebration.  Some reviews (e.g., The Independent, July 2000) considered the question of the "authenticity" of Merritt covering far more experiences than any one lifetime could support, but that presupposes that personal experience is the only source for songs.  But if you accept this is a celebration of love songs, then I suppose that is actually what has happened and why this LP resonates so strongly: we've all heard these kinds of songs and from transcendental to really dumb, they are the stuff of life.

I'm going to deviate from the normal LP Review structure.  There are no bad songs on this LP, and there are too many great songs to cover.  I'm going to choose an arbitrary limit of four songs from each of the three volumes, but don't read too much into this list because I'm sure it would vary each time I rewrote it.

Volume 1:
"All My Little Words"
"I Don't Want To Get Over You"
"The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side"
"The Book Of Love

Volume 2:
"(Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy"
"Washington, D.C."
"Papa Was A Rodeo"
"I Shatter

Volume 3:
"I'm Sorry I Love You"
"Acoustic Guitar"
"Yeah! Oh, Yeah!"
"The Night You Can't Remember"

By my count, 11/12 of the videos linked above are from aspiring video directors, art students, fan boys, and just one is the song uploaded with a static image.  I think that says something about 1) the inspirational quality of the music, and 2) the kinds of people it inspires.

Final Score: 10/10

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mazzy Star - "Common Burn/Lay Myself Down" (LP Review)

Yeah, I know Mazzy Star never officially broke up and they were just on indefinite hiatus, but I was still surprised to find this new single from them.  "Common Burn/Lay Myself Down" was released in late 2011 and is the advance single from their still untitled and unreleased 2012 LP.  Since it was 1996 the last time they released an LP, I guess we can wait 8+ months after the first single is released to find out the title of their new LP. 

In what is becoming de rigueur for hip bands, here are two ways to get this single: digital and 7" vinyl.  I went the iTunes route, in part because I know if I start collecting 7" vinyl I won't be able to stop.  On the other hand, it still doesn't feel real if I don't have a CD to file on the shelf.

The song themselves...  honestly, and I mean this in the best possible way, I can't tell if these are new songs or outtakes from the 1990s.  They represent the two main types of songs from the Mazzy Star oeuvre: "Common Burn" is hazy, quiet shoegazing, dream pop, similar to "Blue Light", "Rhymes of an Hour", or "Mary of Silence".  It sounds like the cover art set to music.  The B-side, "Lay Myself Down", is a more up-beat, alt-country song, not unlike "I'm Sailin'" or "Give You My Lovin".  They sound like Mazzy Star; they sound like the 1990s never ended. 

Standout songs: "Common Ground" (live version), "Lay Myself Down" (

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final Score: 8/10.  Neither song is "Hallah" nor "Fade Into You", but who cares?  It's new Mazzy Star and they (still) sound great.

2013-08-20 edit: The name of their forthcoming LP is "Seasons of Your Day".