Sharps & Flats: The Magnetic Fields

Holiday & the house of tomorrow

By Douglas Wolk
January 27, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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In print only erratically since their 1993 release, these two early records by songwriter-singer-music critic Stephin Merritt's experimental bubble-gum band, the Magnetic Fields, have finally been reissued by Merge, the label that has custody of the rest of the Magnetic Fields catalog. "Holiday," in particular, shouldn't be missed -- it's Merritt's most sonically striking record to date, and it's full of darkly hilarious, inconceivably catchy songwriting.

Returning to it half a decade after its original appearance, it's clear that "Holiday" is permeated with radical electronic experiments. The disc's asynchronous percussion, hissing textures and eerie grating noises anticipate the likes of Autechre and Squarepusher. That's not obvious at first, though, because it's also got some of Merritt's most delicious, resonant songs -- perfectly formed little darts that look like Cupid's arrows and turn out to be explosive-tipped. This is a man who imagines sitting with his sweetheart on a Ferris wheel "under more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand." Centered on the idea of escape, and the kinds of real and false escape that love can offer -- a theme he's returned to again and again -- Merritt's lyrics belie their cheerful tunes with every bitterly literate phrase. "Take Ecstasy With Me" acts like a song about getting away with a lover (chemically more than physically). Upon closer examination, its happy images are all in the past tense, and some of them aren't so happy: "A vodka bottle gave you those raccoon eyes/We got beat up just for holding hands." There are always a couple of elements in the mix that sound conventionally poppy, usually Merritt's languid bass voice and a new-wavy synth. His great trick, though, was figuring out that once the hooks were in place, every other sound in the mix could sound like an alien insect swarm, stone-on-aluminum friction or anything else his synthesizers were capable of.


"The House of Tomorrow," on the other hand, is much less electronic and more electric: Most of it was recorded with a full band. It's essentially a high-concept experiment. Every song is two and a half minutes long, and they're all "loop songs": one short chord progression repeated without variation from beginning to end, with all the musical work done by the melody. Originally released as a four-song, seven-inch EP, it's had an extra track drafted in from another single of the same era, the wry "Alien Being," with its wonderful deadpan chorus: "You have no feelings/I think you are an alien being/You won't let me in/I think you are an alien bein'." "House" isn't the marvel that "Holiday" is -- Merritt often seems hemmed in by the restrictions he's put on himself -- but it's a small treat for fans of the group.

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Nancy Wilson
HEAR IT | -->

BY JULENE SNYDER | It's hard to describe today the depth of feeling that Ann and Nancy could evoke in teenage girls of a certain type back in 1976, when "Dreamboat Annie" first came out. We were the girls with long straight hair, packs of Virginia Slims and plummeting GPAs, aching for love and finding instead older guys with a passion for muscle cars, Led Zeppelin and beer bongs. But at least we had Heart to serve as our surrogate big sisters: Ann and Nancy Wilson understood that we knew the "Magic Man" quite personally. "Mama says she's worried, growing up in a hurry" was quite an understatement where our frantic parents were concerned. "You don't have to love me and let's get high a while" could have been whispered from the mouth of any number of our boyfriends.


It's been quite some time since most of us have gotten wasted on white lightning and wine, but hearing Nancy Wilson belt out "Even it Up" on the opening track of this album -- recorded in Los Angeles in early 1997 -- takes you back those 20 years in a flash. It's a spare record, just Nancy and an acoustic guitar and what sounds like a few dozen people egging her on, but the raucous echo of Heart's heavy-metal influence lingers. A few new songs are on the disc, along with new versions of "These Dreams" and Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes." But it's the familiar tunes that are most satisfying, reminding us of the moment when we first realized that girls could rock hard, too.

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Newtown Neurotics

-->BY GAVIN McNETT | Here's something that's been lost in the official history: Like pro wrestling, punk rock used to be split, quite distinctly, between heroes and heavies. The Sex Pistols were bad guys; the Clash, good guys. Minor Threat were nice, earnest upper-middle-class boys vs. the corpse-kicking, Jersey-goombah Misfits. And so on. And which flavor of band you preferred told how you viewed the world, and what sort of person you were.


The Newtown Neurotics were the most thoroughly upstanding bunch of yobs ever to twist a volume knob to full right, which makes them -- not by official accounts, but in real life -- one of the great punk bands of all time, and hence one of the great rock 'n' roll bands. Naturally a lot of people hated them, but it speaks volumes that their fans include such a world-class good guy as Billy Bragg, who once recorded with the Neurotics as his backing band.

Singer Steve Drewett's bumbly dockworker locution is more than a bit like Bragg's, and his songs have a similar plainspoken, prole-cult appeal. But the Neurotics came first, and their best songs (like "Licensing Hours," "Mindless Violence" and the reworked Members cover "Living With Unemployment," all included here) have something that Bragg doesn't: Blazing power-trio energy and snap-tight small combo arrangements. See Bragg and the Neurotics, respectively, as the Dylan and the Beatles of the social-realist school of punk, get 10 points for spotting Drewett on the cover of the Ramones' "It's Alive" album (he's there, all right) and don't let this great CD slip away.

Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the author of the books "Reading Comics" and "James Brown's Live at the Apollo," and has contributed to a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The Believer.

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