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The Magnetic Fields


Country of origin:

U.S.

Type of music generally:

Alternative pop

Status:

Most recent release, Love at the Bottom of the Sea (2012)

See also:

Stephen Merritt's Site

The Stephen Merritt mailing list page

The Ectophiles' Guide entries for other Stephin Merritt projects: The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, and The Gothic Archies.

Comparisons:

Phil Spector, Brian Wilson

Covers/own material:

Stephin Merritt's songs, very occasional covers and co-writing

General comments:

once upon a time, the magnetic fields included susan anway on vocals and a few others on some instruments (like tuba and cocktail drums—whatever they are). in that incarnation, two albums were released: distant plastic trees and the wayward bus. there was also the accompanying slew of singles and a few tracks on compilation albums. it's hard to say which version of the band i like better. susan's vocals were pretty but stephin's aren't too shabby either. i'll take 'em both. (woj@smoe.org)

the albums that i recommend first for ectophiles are 91's the wayward bus and '89's distant plastic trees which have conveniently been recently re-released on a double cd by merge. the arrangements on the wayward bus are a bit fuller than the track that appeared on the dr death iv compilation track, which i presume to be a demo. they remind me a bit of the first few OMD records—through dazzle ships or so—and they generally feature gobs of layered keyboards, usually programmed drums, accents of tuba(!) and cello, and susan anway's clear, unaffected vocals, which remind me more than a bit of sally timms. after a brief intermission you get to hear distant plastic trees which is tuba- and cello-free, and more often drum-machine-free, and features the song that Michael probably heard on the radio, their 'big hit' "100,000 fireflies." on both records the songs often have very uplifting melodies, sometimes verging on bouncy, and really depressive lyrics.
     after these two records, stephin merritt took over the vocal chores—he's got a really low voice, like michael been from the call or gira from the swans, and has since released a string of solid gloompop records, of which my pick is probably 95's charm of the highway strip, though the new one, get lost is pretty durn good too. (6/96, dmw@mwmw.com)

Stephin Merritt is amazing. anyone who likes happy music with depressing lyrics (really happy music with brilliant depressing lyrics) needs to get The Magnetic Fields. FANTASTIC.
     Stephin is known for his lo-fi pop songs, synthpop sensibilities, and wry deadpan sense of humor. he often plays with gender stereotypes with his songs (writing from both genders' points of view, a fact that is compounded by often having someone, male or female, sing the songs, as well as the fact that it is common knowledge by his fans that he is gay). and he writes the damn catchiest songs to boot.
     there were two albums that had female vocals, released under The Magnetic Fields name. both of them sung by Susan Anway, they were the first two albums released by The Magnetic Fields and have now been rereleased on one CD. Susan unfortunately moved to texas after the release of Distant Plastic Trees and convinced Stephin to sing instead.
     his voice has gotten progressively better though. 69 love songs is probably his best to date, and tops my 1999 list. it helps that he writes in such a varied style on the project and has three other singers in the 3CD set.
     depressing lyrics. perky music. happy sounds, set to somber words, what more can you ask for? not to mention the fact that Stephin is an EXCELLENT lyricist. love him. he puts on great live shows too. (iflin@speakeasy.net)

The Magnetic Fields, which has existed in many incarnations over the last howeverlong, is basically Stephin Merritt and whomever he feels like playing with. They had two albums years and years ago, under the The Magnetic Fields name, which featured female vocals. Very casiotone, but very fabulous. (burka@jeffrey.net)

Comments about live performance:

It was the first time I've seen them live, and I thought they were incredible. Virtually every lyric shone through perfectly. And I thought Stephin Merritt's voice sounded wonderful. Live, it was actually smoother and more resonant than on the little bit of recorded material I've heard, and I love his wit and songwriting. The band was having a good time, joking around and making impromptu decisions on the songs to be played. I was really pleased to not only see a cello in the band, but to hear it used to such good effect. I wasn't sure what I'd think of the band live, but they far exceeded my expectations. (neal)

i just have to say that The Magnetic Fields show that i went to last week was one of the most amazing shows i have been to in years. Stephin Merritt is brilliant. (iflin@speakeasy.net)

Recommended first album:

if i were to start with The Magnetic Fields i would probably get Holiday which is his most consistent album. (iflin@speakeasy.net)

Most ectophiles, because of their love of female vocals, would probably start with The Wayward Bus/Distant Plastic Trees combination disc. (Neile)

Recordings:


The Wayward Bus/Distant Plastic Trees

Release info:

Dual issue of two originally separate releases: 1994—Merge Records—MRG075CD

Availability:

Can be found in places that carry U.S. indie releases

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended for pop fans

Group members:

Stephin Merritt
Susan Anway—singing
Johny Blood—tuba, horns
Sam Davol—cello
Claudia Gonson—cocktail drums

Comments:

Stephin Merritt's great pop (bright sounds, dark lyrics) songwriting combined with Susan Anway's voice. Enchanting. (Neile)

The sound was not what I expected. Sure it was rich and jangly and kind of dreamy. But the rhythm and structure of a lot of the songs belonged more to Phil Spector than to, say, Cocteau Twins. How bizarre! How infectious and ultimately delightful. Downbeat lyrics sung to upbeat oldies played on ambient keyboards with programmed rhythms. Works for me. The Wayward Bus makes my year's top 10 list, but Distant Plastic Trees, which I liked less missed the cut. (maeldun@i-2000.com)


Holiday

Release info:

1994—Feel Good All Over—FGAO #26

Availability:

Can be found in places that carry U.S. indie releases

Ecto priority:

Recommended for pop fans

Group members:

Stephin Merritt
Johny Blood—tuba
Sam Davol—cello
Claudia Gonson—toys

Comments:

For those happy sad melancholy electronic-orientated indiepop times that we all (should) feel sometimes in our lives. and for that best lyrics ever in popdom "...in a ferris wheel on coney island, with more stars above than prostitutes in thailand". One of my top 10 of the year. (iflin@speakeasy.net)

The Charm of the Highway Strip

Release info:

1994—Merge Records—MRG055CD

Availability:

Can be found in places that carry U.S. indie releases

Ecto priority:

Recommended for pop fans

Group members:

Stephin Merritt
Sam Davol—cello

Comments:

The Charm of the Highway Strip blew me away. (kyrlidis@earthlink.net)

Get Lost

Release info:

1995—Merge Records—MRG091CD

Availability:

Can be found in places that carry U.S. indie releases

Ecto priority:

Recommended for pop fans

Group members:

Stephin Merritt
Sam Davol—cello, flute
John Woo—guitar, banjo
Claudia Gonson—drums, voice, ukulele
Julie Cooper—bass guitar
Natalie Lithwick—French speaker
Andrew Beaujon—translation

Comments:

stephin merritt continues to churn out albums of weird, irresistible indiediscopop. like the 6ths? you'll like this. maybe even more since his musical madness isn't filtered by guest vocalizers. i do. only listened to once so far. nonetheless, thumbs up! (woj@smoe.org)

69 love songs

1999—Merge Records

Availability:

Can be found in places that carry U.S. indie releases

Ecto priority:

Recommended for low-fi pop fans

Group members:

Stephin Merritt—mastermind, vocals, song-writer, ukulele
Claudia Gonson—piano, drums, percussion, vocals, arrangement, guitar, whistling
John Woo—banjo, lead guitar, mandolin, bass
Sam Davol—cello, flute
Daniel Handler—accordion, keyboards, arrangement

Guest artists:

L.D. Beghtol—vocals, harmonium
Dudley Klute—vocals
Shirley Simms—vocals
Ida Perale—violin
Chris Ewen—arrangement, instruments, theremin

Produced by:

Stephin Merritt

Comments:

those of you who haven't gotten 69 love songs and are familiar with Stephin Merritt's music should run and get it. VOL 1 and 3 are stronger than 2, but all three are excellent. get the box set if you want all three discs. it has a fat booklet with pictures and an interview/conversation with Stephin which goes through all 69 songs one by one. you will find the three volumes certainly have some filler songs, but on the whole are quite excellent, and quite varied. my boss thought one of the songs sounded like Johnny Cash. with four different singers, plus Stephin the set is more akin to his the 6ths project than The Magnetic Fields.
     for those out there who don't want to invest in all three discs (though you should, you really should), pick up disc one—it is the strongest one of the three, though the other two are quite excellent as well.
     69 love songs is probably the gayest thing he has done. and his most bitter as well. favorite stand outs include "A Chicken With His Head Cut Off", "I Don't Want to Get Over You", "The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side", "Meaningless", "Papa Was A Rodeo", "Sweet-lovin' Man", "Come Back From San Francisco", and "Washington DC". i have to list that many songs, because, yes, there are actually 69 songs, split between the three CDs (23 each). (iflin@speakeasy.net)

I'm really liking this 3-disc set. I find Stephin Merritt to definitely have an ecto sensibility about him—even though he mostly does lo-fi pop—his humor and pop sensibility remind me of Steve Poltz, but without the fascination with beer and hot dogs. (jjhanson@att.net)

Possibly too much of a good thing. Brilliant in small doses. The most requested music by people who are talking to me on the phone. Not sure what it is about it that sounds so good over the telephone lines. (neal)

This is only part 1 and i'm stunned by the wit and variation of it. A whole box set would swamp me. (stjarnell@yahoo.com)


Thanks to Jeffrey Hanson for work on this entry.

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DISCLAIMER: Comments and reviews in the Ectophiles' Guide are excerpted from the ecto mailing list or volunteered by members of the list. They are the opinions of music enthusiasts, not professional music critics.

Entry last updated 2013-09-01 16:00:31.
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