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The Magnetic Fields – The Wayward Bus / Distant Plastic Trees

July 5, 2007

It never occured to me that The Magnetic Fields had much else of immediate worth in their catalog other than 69 Love Songs until I was recommended this collection of two small albums. One of the reasons that 69 Love Songs was so amazing was that it covered lots of completely unique styles, the most notable of which is fragile ukulele driven folk ballads, but what people sometimes forget is that some of the best songs on 69LS are the more traditional, less ambitious ones. Traveling back in time almost ten years interestingly enough doesn’t do much to deter the staggering pop sensibility of Stephin Merritt. For the most part, these songs are finely crafted pop of typical structure with a completely unique style. And also interesting is the fact that they have aged fairly well even in the face of the bands later, more revered work.

What will strike fans first is that these albums are the bands first try. The rate of success in these songs is so consistent it is almost unbelievable. These songs are all lovely, quaint little love songs that have predictable but ultimately enjoyable melodies and hooks. A lot of what makes The Fields’ later work more enjoyable is how lightly challenging it is. But most of these songs are easy vocabulary for pop fans immediately recognizable. This makes the experience all the more immediate but that much less precious as far as lasting impact goes. The songs are very hummable and lovely, and the hooks are unique to each song and surprisingly all very great. And the amount of material there is here on this collection is very nice, and makes for a feast to the kind of music fans who enjoy these kinds of songs. the mood ranges from lovely and happy to almost tragically bittersweet.

But the more distinctive aspect of the records are what they sound like production wise. Most of these songs consist of simple synthesizers, that in some ways sound completely artificial while the melodies themselves “keep it real” so to say. This mixed with the fact that a lot of the songs simply sound like lovely little rural songs makes for a juxtaposition that sounds odd in words but surprisingly works in the music. The covers of these two albums depict a lovely scribbled suburbia that this style depicts well. The band also experiments with exotic instruments at times and creates atmospheres that can be likened to tropical islands or far eastern villages. Another difference in all this music that fans who have worked backwards will find interesting is the vocals. All of these vocals are done by Susan Anway, who has a very gentle sweeping voice that works very well for all of these romantic lyrics. As usual, the lyrics are completely superb. In fact, one of the greatest aspects about The Magnetic Fields music is how embossed the lyrics feel. New fans to the Magnetic Fields often cite the lyrics as one of the first things that pop out, and for sure, Stephin Merritt is an unbelievable lyricist who creates poetry that syncs perfectly with the music. Specific poetic standouts turn up in pretty much every song, and personal favorites are not few. I suppose a few really great ones are 100,000 Fireflies, Summer Lies, and Lovers From The Moon.

But in general, the consistency of the record is quite impressive. There are a couple of throwaways, but out of twenty one songs, a good fifteen of them are really strong. The differences between Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus lie mostly in the instrumentation, specifically the fact that cello and horns were introduced to The Wayward Bus. The addition of the cello proved to be a wonderful move that would positively impact the band for the rest of their career. The cello is a beautiful, sweeping instrument that works wonders over the bass, and serves up brilliant harmonies when it is present. Favorite songs of mine are When You Were My Baby, Lovers From The Moon, and Tar Heel Boy. In the end, this collection compiles two already good albums onto one disk and has many truly wonderful songs on it. As a purchase, this is simply awesome.

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