Posts Tagged ‘the magnetic fields’

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Washington DC

November 9, 2008

I have lived in Washington DC for nearly three months.

I find it difficult to even begin to sum up how I feel about my new life and this new city. In some respects I am extremely happy, slightly uneasy in some others, indifferent in others still.

If someone I know asks me how I like my new school and Washington DC, I tell them I love it. This is the truth, no distortion. I do love it here.

Somewhere along the line things started to go extremely right for me. I don’t think I could mention a specific point in time when things started to go very well for me, but it was around the time of Thanksgiving 2007. I was no longer depressed, and I started to find beauty in little things. Insignificant things. Life became poetry. Details fascinated me. I was learning things about myself and the world around me rapidly and appreciatively. I still feel this way now.

Things began to go really well with my friends. I started going out with my lovely girlfriend. My family started to seem less fucked up. I got into three colleges. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, American University, and the George Washington University. I always counted out GWU because it cost so much, but then I got the scholarships, and the financial aid, and my future didn’t seem like so much of a stretch anymore. UofI gave me $500, while American and GWU gave me thousands. It seemed as if something wanted me to go to Washington DC. So I did. I saw the fireworks on the Fourth of July, and then I just continued to do what I was doing, and here I am, walking on solid ground and doing what I do.

Of course, it is not like I am simply walking on sunshine every day. I definitely am not. I have good days and I have bad days. What is still particularly disconcerting about this is that the good and bad days seem to have no specific cause. Some days, everything goes right and everything feels wrong, and on other days I feel unstoppable despite the fact that I am followed around by my own rain cloud. I don’t understand it and I hope to ask someone about it sometime soon, possibly my psychology teacher. I have obviously been able to manage very well but it bothers me not having control over my mind.

Which is why I don’t drink or do drugs. We talked about drug abuse in abnormal psychology. Barbiturates, hallucinogens, narcotics. Occasionally I have headaches so bad I wish I was high, or take enough allergy medicine to feel delusional, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I am well on my way to becoming a caffeine addict, but my mind is already fucked up enough as it is, and I see little good in causing it any more stress by adding any serious substances to the equation. It means I don’t have as much fun at parties, and I don’t go to them much, but I don’t really care.

When I want to lose my head, I climb the stairs to the top of the parking garage and look off at the city. Sometimes I climb the little ladder to the very top, before I am silently scrutinized by twenty somethings in their Mitsubishis, and I get a view of the Virginia skyline, which is quite beautiful. The buildings are much taller than the buildings in Washington DC.

But they don’t have to try too hard. I noticed several things within the first week of living in DC, one of the first of which being that the buildings here are very short. At least compared to the buildings in Chicago. The buildings in Chicago literally scrape the sky, but the ones here are very stout in comparison. To some extent I miss the cold of Chicago, the cold that comes up from the buildings and whirls and cuts right through you. Washington DC is a southern town, so it stays warm for a long time, and that cold is yet to come. I miss the weather back in Illinois. It doesn’t feel like home here, in that respect. I think it has the potential to be able to, but when it is still seventy degrees in November, it feels like someone has given the city painkillers and it has numbed to this unnatural warmth.

Another thing I noticed is that the animals aren’t afraid of people. In the suburbs of Chicago and even Chicago itself, the birds and squirrels do not let you get close to them. Well, the pigeons do, but it’s really only because they are dumb. But here the swallows line up on the fences as people walk by, and sometimes only barely hop out of the way of your feet on the pavement as your feet swing in time. The squirrels are insane. Rather, nuts. They will run out in front of you, jump on and off of tree stumps continuously, and just generally be very weird.

I also experienced the first time I ever really felt like an adult. I didn’t feel like an adult when I got my drivers license, or got my first job, or graduated High School, or turned eighteen, although all of these experiences still hold significance to me. But putting my absentee ballot in the mailbox made me truly feel like I was participating in the world that I live in. I think these milestones come at different times and in different places for different people, and they seem to be unexpected.

The experience of watching the election returns and watching history be made was unforgettable. It was by far the most distinct memory I have had here so far. The College Democrats’ watch party was fun, but what was really the highlight of the night was when what felt like every college student in DC (all the liberal ones, anyway, which would be a vast majority of them) ran down to the White House and partied outside the front gate. It was an experience to remember, with lots of celebrating, cheering, rejoicing, chanting, and all around good energy. A couple camera’s got up in my face and me and my friends ended up on the Associated Press as well as BBC news.

Whose house?

Barack’s house.

I’m here for college. I love GWU a lot. Maybe I just got lucky this semester. It seems like I keep on getting lucky. All five of my classes are excellent, and I would consider all five of my professors excellent too. I don’t always get great marks on tests, and I don’t always study enough. But it seems like I get it right more often than not, despite the fact that I always underestimate myself. I told people about this problem. This complete certainty that I don’t have things under control despite the fact that I seem to. They told me to roll with it. If it’s working, don’t fix it. I guess that’s what I’ll do.

I sign up for next semester’s classes tomorrow. I’ve got a flexible game plan together, but I really want to sign up for a University Writing class called Write of the Living Dead, which focuses on horror film. I also would like to get Statistics out of the way. I want to also take Social Psychology, which pretty much epitomizes the focus of my college studies, and do the second half of Introduction to Western Art. The fifth class is up for grabs. Possibly Anthropology, or Astronomy, or whatever else fits. But those first four I really, really want to take, and I’m going to wake up very early so that I can register as soon as the website opens to ensure I get them.

My interest in writing has waned, although my interest in music has not. My time and energy has simply been directed towards other things. I have been porting all of my music reviews to amazon.com, and that takes a while. Also, I am going to train to be able to be an intern at WRGW, the University’s radio station. With any luck I will have my own radio show by next semester.

DC has some pretty great record stores, apparently. The area around DuPont Circle and Adams Morgan reminds me a lot of Wicker Park in Chicago. Young, hip, fun, and totally hopping on any given night. My favorite record store is called The Red Onion. It sells lots of old records, CDs, and books at good prices. The employees are nice and very helpful, and the environment is comfortable. Since I got here I have amassed a fairly large stack of CDs that are now on my bookshelf. I’m still an avid music listener and my hobby won’t likely slow down.

I have gone to some pretty great concerts. I saw Broken Social Scene live in Falls Church Virginia, and they kicked all kinds of ass. The Magnetic Fields also played at GW, so I saw them again as well as Shugo Tokumaru, who opened for them and who I have been extremely into for the past month. I had a taste of classical music that I have missed at the Kennedy Center watching the Friday Morning Music Club Symphony Orchestra play lots of good Beethoven. They aren’t quite as good as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but really, who is? They were good, and pianist Wayne Weng was impressive.

The biggest problems I face here are social. I have not had a hard time making friends here, and the ones I have made I like a lot, but it is hard to start on a blank slate and try to give all these new people an accurate representation of who I am. I miss my family and friends from back home. I haven’t seen anyone from my old life in three months besides my mother and my grandmother on parent weekend. I go home for four days for Thanksgiving break and three weeks for Winter Break. Although I love it here, I am looking forward to going back home and seeing everyone again.

The best thing I have to say so far is that I know I am in the right place, going in the right direction. My problems are mostly easily fixed, and I am managing just fine. I have seen and done many things here that I could have never done back home. It was right for me to come here, and I can see myself living here happily and productively for the next four years of my life.

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The Magnetic Fields – Distortion

May 15, 2008

When I saw The Magnetic Fields a couple months ago at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Stephen Merritt noted that probably 80% of the people in the audience had a blog, and that 50% of those people would go home that night and comment on the show. I didn’t do this, maybe because I was afraid of Stephen Merritt thinking I was lame (as if he was going to check up on the assessments of his band on shitty blogs), or perhaps because I was tired and lazy. And thirsty. It was another concert where I didn’t drink anything the entire time and I was very dehydrated. I bought a bottle of Coke on the way home. I bought a BOTTLE of Coke. In a gas station. That excited me. I don’t drink Coke from bottles very much. I couldn’t actually open it until I got inside though. I kept on working to get inside it in the car and it just wouldn’t budge. I had to settle in before I could actually drink my delicious beverage. It was the tastiest Coke I had ever experienced.

The Magnetic Fields concert was an experience. Listening to a Magnetic Fields album is usually an experience anyway, but seeing the band live helps to bring spirit and soul to the songs. I’m glad I had not bought Distortion before seeing the band live. I heard them perform, many of the songs from Distortion, and upon listening to the album itself, the songs that I heard live were immediately recognizable and easy to be comfortable with.

The fact that it took another four years to make Distortion, and that it also dons the now standard Fields label and a simplistic cover, denotes that the album should have yet another gimmick. It does, and it doesn’t. Distortion takes to its name, and is drenched in distortion, both smooth and screeching throughout, ala The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. The songs are almost of uniform length, none running over three minutes and ten seconds.

It seems like there should be some kind of solvable puzzle here, some key to be found that unlocks everything. It is because of 69 Love Songs and i that expectations of this album have been distorted to the point of being ridiculous. And in fact, 69 Love Songs did have a trick to it, and so did i. There is no trick on Distortion, and if there is one, it isn’t significant. We are tricked into thinking that the distortion is the key to the album.

It isn’t. It’s a caramel coating that needs to be cracked with a spoon to get to the ice cream. The Fields are not the first band to use these tricks. Psychocandy did it twenty five years ago, and I’d be shocked if these musicians did not know that. The distortion and feedback does not work quite as effectively on Distortion. The Jesus And Mary Chain were a pop band, like The Fields, but they were also a punk band. When The Fields include the elderly noise punk effects of Psychocandy into the album, it seems like an unwelcome distraction, regardless of how natural they actually were during recording.

Some aspect of the distortion does, however, strike a pleasing chord. Many of the songs feel lost in the fuzz, subdued, blanketed. Unlike Psychocandy’s distortion and feedback, the effects here are rather innocuous most of the time and do not detract from the album’s pop spirit. In that sense, production wise, it sounds more like The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees than anything, with hushed cymbal hits, gentle pianos, and exclamatory guitars, this time with the updated vocals and songwriting sensibilities of the present day Fields. The band also played Lovers From The Moon at the concert. That song sounded just as natural and free as the new songs, also performed without their original electric context.

While the production is no coy framework, the Magnetic Fields, and particularly Stephen Merritt, are masters of meter and verse, and can be clever and enjoyable within the confines of individual songs. Three Way, for example, is both silly and assuring at once in its sly trinity. Other fun roundabout approaches at deep emotion are seen in California Girls, a pot shot at the romantic musings of the Beach Boys, and Too Drunk To Dream, which should be the official drinking anthem of the USA or possibly the entire world if we could make it rhyme in every language. The genre hopping here is as prevalent as on 69 Love Songs or i, and in that sense Distortion is just as much of a treasure trove.

The ending Courtesans makes a convincing case for the importance of all of the distortion, but ultimately, Distortion is not an album that holds itself together with some unifying theme. The production, while unnecessary, works to the album’s advantage at least more than the production on i, and is not a major distraction. It is another album of vintage Magnetic Fields, and we like it for that reason. We like the Magnetic Fields. They seem to be obscuring their personality with smoke and mirrors, but Stephen Merritt could have hired Jim Reid to sing these songs and it wouldn’t fool us.

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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.