Magnetic Fields

69 Love Songs


Holy Modal Rounders

Too Much Fun!


Randy Newman

Bad Love


By Josh Goldfein

In this post-queer, post-feminist, post-rock, post-enthusiasm age, when nothing can’t be said and everything has been, it’s awfully hard to be a self-aware pop artist. Can’t shock ’em, can’t rock ’em, can’t tell ’em anything they don’t already know: you can try a new approach and make the medium the message, or you can play with the same toys everyone else has and squeeze off a sly wink when you get the chance. If you’re too “different,” you run the risk of coming off as pretentious, but the unrelenting irony of the other extreme can be just as wearisome. One solution to this dilemma is to try something so old it becomes new again.

There’s a certain cachet to an archival sensibility: it makes you look knowledgeable and lets everyone know you recognize the limits of the form. Plus, it can be funny in a quirky retro way, and it’s easy to make jokes when it’s already clear you don’t mean it. On their new records, artists rooted in three distinct musical movements–the Magnetic Fields, the Holy Modal Rounders, and Randy Newman–go digging in the crates for a twist to distinguish them not only from their peers but also from the inherent complications of their own music.

From “Absolutely Cuckoo” to “Zebra,” the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs is exactly that, and though the concept’s not much of a stretch–just about every song on the indie-pop band’s six previous records was a love song–the execution sometimes is. Each of the three CDs (available separately or in a box set with a booklet) contains 23 cuts, and to fill the bill songwriter Stephin Merritt has declared open season on pop archetypes: Abba, bossa nova, country, synth pop, even Tuvan throat singing. (The more dubious of these seem to have squeezed some of his best recent songs out of the project, staples of the band’s concerts like “Movie Star” and “As You Turn to Go.”)

Mostly, though, Merritt’s lilting melodies plunder the disposable good cheer of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building; the sweeping, romantic chamber pop of Petula Clark or Burt Bacharach; even Jimmy Van Heusen’s flighty songs for Frank Sinatra. But his production values, while elegant, are inexorably dinky: a tin-pot Prince, he synthesizes most of the music himself, with occasional intrusions from bandmates Claudia Gonson (piano, drums), John Woo (banjo, guitar), and Sam Davol (cello). Merritt’s stage persona is half the show: with his Eeyore eyes and omnipresent cigarette, he’s a boho inversion of Rudy Vallee in The Palm Beach Story, crooning under Claudette Colbert’s window. Vallee was the wrong man because he was too naive, but you can’t live with Merritt for the opposite reason: he’s the man who knows too much.

Sharper than Mack the Knife, Merritt has a savage lyrical gift without peer in his generation. His great theme is not simply love but the failure of love: his love, his lover’s love, love that never happened, love that has tried and failed. Wicked, wanton, and witty, like the bastard offspring of Cole Porter and Dorothy Parker, Merritt is a classicist–he’s probably responsible for half of all songs written about the moon in this decade. He’s got a rep as an ironist, but he’s often shatteringly direct, and he’s more brazenly of his moment than Parker or Porter dared to be.

Take “Come Back From San Francisco,” one of the best of the 69 songs. Our protagonist, who appears to be male (Merritt is gay, but his songs are very slippery with gender; adding to the confusion, the song is sung by female guest vocalist Shirley Sims), pleads with his love in terms that easily conjure the rest of the story: “Should pretty boys and discos / Distract you from your novel / Remember I’m awful in love with you.” The chorus, however, is priceless: “You need me / Like the wind needs the trees to blow in / Like the moon needs poetry / You need me.” It’s a simple song, and it could work in any number of musical contexts, but Merritt’s narrative details tie it more firmly to a particular corner of the world than Porter’s double entendres (“Baby if I’m the bottom / You’re the top”) could.

Likewise, in “Papa Was a Rodeo,” a Randy Newman-esque ballad styled as a country weeper, he warns someone named Mike: “I see that kiss-me pucker forming / But maybe you should plug it with a beer / ‘Cause Papa was a rodeo / Mama was a rock ‘n’ roll band….Home was anywhere with diesel gas / Love was a trucker’s hand.” Deftly weaving together imagery from western music and hidden gay spaces, Merritt never drops his deadpan, daring you to smile.

His smarty-pants references can be distracting (“I’m no Nino Rota / I don’t know the score”), although often they are fiendishly clever, as when Swiss linguist and protodeconstructionist Ferdinand de Saussure is heard to remark, “We don’t know anything / You don’t know anything / I don’t know anything–about love / But we are nothing / You are nothing / I am nothing / Without love.” The song’s narrator then shoots him in the name of the Motown production team Holland-Dozier-Holland (who wrote, among other things, “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone,” and “Where Did Our Love Go”). At his most effective, Merritt combines tried-and-true songcraft with mordant humor to capture the complexity of his sorrow in contemporary terms. His best songs sound like what TV ads call “timeless,” but his words and the instrumentation make it clear where he’s coming from.

If there was ever a musical movement that distinguished itself by reinventing the wheel, it was the folk revival of the 60s. Freighted with political baggage that dated as quickly as a newspaper, the folkies were never renowned for their sense of humor; one stellar exception was the Holy Modal Rounders, a duo that through the hippie era mutated into an unstable band. Like Merritt, who’s put out records as the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes, they can’t be contained by a single band name or lineup; their entry in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will have to include the Fugs, the Moray Eels, northwest folk outcasts the Clamtones, hippie crooner Michael Hurley, and playwright Sam Shepard, among others.

Peter Stampfel is the humorist of the pair. Stampfel collects bottle caps, soda pop trivia, and “old-timey music,” and his sugary taste applies equally to all three categories. He defines that last one pretty broadly: it encompasses a lot of Merritt’s suave sources as well as diverse troves like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the Grand Ole Opry, Spike Jones’s cartoony craziness, and James Bond sound tracks. Stampfel’s singing is the polar opposite of Merritt’s dour basso profundo; his good-natured yelping can make the grotesque seem charming, but his voice is so distinctive that it becomes impossible to separate his curatorial persona from the music he celebrates. His “Bad Boy” reinvents a girl-group tune he stumbled across, itself apparently adapted from “Stagger Lee”: “He knows illegal people / He does illegal things / But he doesn’t sound illegal when he plays guitar and sings / He’s a bad boy / But I don’t care.” Stampfel plays it for empathy, but the gleeful way he sings the word “illegal” also makes it clear how delighted he is to have come upon this odd nugget of Americana.

Steve Weber, Stampfel’s longtime partner, plays the part of the horny and irresponsible older brother; over the years, Stampfel has gone so far as to warn fans in liner notes not to let Weber near their money or drugs. He doesn’t even appear on his crowd’s best record, the utopian Have Moicy! (1976), and without Stampfel, it’s hard to imagine Weber showing up for a gig, let alone finishing one. But under Stampfel’s steadying influence he contributes a jolly stoner wisdom and some fine country-blues guitar. On Too Much Fun!, the fourth and most vibrant of the Weber-Stampfel-dominated records, Weber’s “Antoinette” captures the innocence of Bronx doo-wop in a way Paul Simon’s Capeman could only describe. He gets hopped up for “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” a cowboy version of fiddle tune that anticipated Abba’s best metaphor, and goes totally over the edge for a retake of the Hackberry Ramblers yodeler “Crowley Waltz,” which the Rounders first recorded in 1964.

Their first version of the tune can be heard on the Rounders’ second record, which Fantasy has just re-reissued, along with their 1963 debut, as The Holy Modal Rounders 1 & 2. These records now sound “straight,” but they sparkle against the dreary conservatism of that era’s folk scene. If Dylan’s beatnik diction was shocking to the folkies, imagine what they thought of Stampfel’s squealing and squawking on “Black Eyed Suzie” (although even Stampfel can’t generate a more cracked vocal for “Fishing Blues” than Henry Thomas’s version on Harry Smith’s Anthology). The Rounders play up the singularity of vernacular music, reminding each successive generation of freaks that they can never be as weird as what came before them.

In the 60s and 70s, while the Rounders were resurrecting American classics, Randy Newman was making them, writing songs that were recorded by the likes of Harry Nilsson, Dusty Springfield, and Judy Collins. He’s made a career as a satirist, although in contrast to the outsider stance of Merritt or Stampfel, he trades on being an insider, blowing up his status like a Macy’s parade balloon. In his three classic takes on bigotry–“Sail Away,” “Rednecks,” and “Short People”–Newman plays the bigot. His characters are so crass they’re almost painful: part of the joke of “Short People” was that it went right over most people’s heads. Newman’s also straight-faced in his music; his film scores are haunting in their banality. His records mix Sousa and show tunes for a doltish public music from the town square of the Simpsons’ Springfield.

Producers Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom, who’ve helped Los Lobos become America’s most creative rock band, can’t manage a similar feat for Newman. Bad Love, his first record for Dreamworks, revisits familiar territory. “The Great Nations of Europe” resurrects the genocidal imperialism and shallow oompahs of “Political Science,” in terms even more glib. His history of the Canary Islands goes like this: “There were natives there called Guanches / Guanches by the score / Bullets, disease, the Portuguese, and they weren’t there anymore / Now they’re…really gone / You’ve never seen anyone so gone.” To a Sondheim sound track, he chides Karl Marx that “The World Isn’t Fair”; his evidence is that “beautiful women” have children with “men much like me / Froggish men, unpleasant to see.” Newman wants to be Lenny Bruce, but sometimes he’s just Jackie Mason.

His humor is best when it’s directed at characters he could actually be. “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” is a passable rocker about a 52-year old rocker. “I have nothing left to say / But I say it anyway / Thirty years upon a stage / And I hear the people say / Why won’t he go away?” he begins, concluding, “Each record that I’m making / Is like a record that I’ve made / Just not as good.” Rock’s not his style, so he uses it to inoculate himself from criticism, and it’s just cute enough to work. He’s more comfortable in western regalia: “Big Hat, No Cattle” riffs on the colorful Texan insult “all hat and no cattle.” It’s a useful phrase for Angelenos like Newman, and he works out all the phallic permutations (“Big boat, no paddle…Big snake, no rattle”), much in the vein of his gentler disciple, dog-faced comedian Lyle Lovett.

Newman, of course, also writes tender, earnest ballads with lovely melodies (cabaretgoers should brace themselves for the tragic “Every Time It Rains”), which only makes his role playing more complicated. Pop plays on the listener’s identification with the singer, but Newman shifts from sympathetic to hateful without so much as a musical cue, winking at any emotional involvement we may have with his songs. The effect can be disconcerting. The most powerful song on Bad Love is “My Country,” in which he reminisces about a time when “If we had something to say / We’d bounce it off the [TV] screen / We were all watching and we couldn’t look away / We all know what we look like / You know what I mean.” His life unexamined to the end, our protagonist observes of his grown children, “They all live alone now / They have TVs of their own / But they keep on coming over anyway / And much as I love them / I’m always kind of glad when they go away.” The sweeping chorus, “This is my country / These are my people / This is the world I understand” had my dad singing along, at least until I pointed out the rest of the lyrics to him.

It’s easy to find materials at a garage sale: John Linnell of They Might Be Giants has just released a record for Rounder that consists of songs about various states, some played by paper rolls on 19th-century pipe organs. His approach is certainly “different,” but his trademark goofy lyrics (“I forget you, ‘tah,” he sings in “Utah”) are too alien to be moving. Merritt, the Rounders and Newman are rummagers in the tradition of Todd Oldham, Marcel Duchamp, or Mike Kelley: Merritt roots through the trash and makes what he takes his own; Stampfel and Weber pick out the good stuff no one wants anymore; Newman salvages what the other rich people threw away because it was too much of a hassle to get it fixed. Their brilliance is in how they play the gap between who they are and what they find.