MAGNET Classics: XTC’s “Skylarking”

XTC

The making of XTC’s Skylarking
By A.D. Amorosi

To pick apart the XTC catalog is folly.

Created by sons of Swindon, England; girded by the singing and smart (assed) songwriting of guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding, XTC never remained complacent during its time together, though one could argue that the band was pop’s most reluctant ensemble, despite what Partridge called the “gentle competition” of its two songwriters.

“Colin would come up with some songs, usually first, then I would feel the need to beat them,” says Partridge. “He might in turn come up with a few more, and again me in response to those.” They never wrote together. Camaraderie was found in other areas of the band, “and not the writing,” claims Partridge. “That was insular.”

XTC moved from the herky-jerky new wave of its start (1978’s White Music) into something subdued, yet richly melodic in Swinging ’60s fashion (1979’s Drum And Wires, 1980’s Black Sea), before winding up with the intellectually and sonically complex English Settlement of 1981. Rather than capitalize on its clever intricacy (as well as the success of hit single “Senses Working Overtime”), Partridge wound up on the wrong end of stage fright in 1982, and vowed never to tour again. This didn’t stop Partridge, Moulding and third member Dave Gregory from becoming a neo-psychedelic side band, the Dukes Of Stratosphear, with two records to its name. Or, as XTC, recording complicated, studio-rat efforts such as 1983’s Mummer or 1992’s Nonsuch before winding up as more epically plush (1999’s Apple Venus, Vol. 1 and its second volume, subtitled Wasp Star) than the band started.

“‘23,’ said Churchill—that’s the age to be,’ and he may have had a point,” says Moulding in regard to the collective band age when XTC was at its most “affable, humorous, open to suggestion, and every bit at ease with the prospect of working together.”

“Like most young bands, we were a gang that lived in each other’s pockets on the road and in the studio,” says Partridge, recalling the psychology of XTC. “The most fun we ever had in the studio was recording the Dukes records. There was no pressure—it was just one big fancy dress ball for the head. Anything went, any sound, any idea, as long as it felt like it could have been historically correct for 1967. There was zero pressure. We never knew if it would sell, and the Dukes had nothing to live up to. We could never do that with XTC, as there was too much money involved and we were expected to be mentally honest and ‘real.’ Too much financial pressure.”

By the time that the band stopped making albums in 2000, XTC had amassed 12 of pop’s most cunningly lyrical, contagiously hummable albums (not counting the Dukes efforts) shaded by the elegant green pastoralism of the English countryside and the flashing red glare of the Beatles and the Kinks’ Carnaby Street.

Each of XTC’s albums is, without exaggeration, glorious.

Then there’s 1986’s Skylarking.

Speaking from the Ape House offices maintained by Partridge for XTC’s archival activities, the bassist, like Partridge, has little reason to peek backward. “I don’t think I could afford the ring that Andy would want placed on his finger,” says Moulding. “That life has gone for me. I would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. Everything changes; one has to accept it and move on. You cannot go back.”

Yet, they did go back in order to discuss the Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking. (“And to see that our story in pop history gets the justice it deserves,” says Moulding. “That, and cold hard cash.”)

More lyrically mature, lush and gently psychedelic than anything before in their catalog, Skylarking borrowed the hilly, holy feel of Mummer, as well as the ringing Beatles-ish vibe from 1984’s The Big Express, but with a softly sweeping gracefulness and a finessed orchestral swirl. Combine that with adult lyrical themes touching upon the daring uncertainty of marriage (“Big Day”) and romance (“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”) along with the skepticism behind maturation (“Earn Enough For Us”) and eternal rest (“Dying”), and there is a sense that this album could not have happened at any other point in XTC’s history, save for Mummer.

Partridge riffs quickly on the things going on in his life that made Skylarking’s topicality bracing: “Growing up. Realizing responsibilities. Opening up to where I lived—to Wiltshire, the nature there. Questioning things deeper. God, existence—the chewier questions. Probably as a result of me, at that time, coming off—rather abruptly—of 13 years of valium addiction. I was thinking clearer and wanted to know stuff. Life’s big questions. Funny you should mention Mummer, though, as that, for me, was the first of the clear-thinking albums.”

Skylarking, then, is a provocatively personal, bucolic, Arcardian, even ecclesiastical masterpiece once you consider that the album’s primary American hit, “Dear God,” was a begrudging add-on, according to Rundgren. “Andy didn’t want that song on the album, and neither did the A&R guy at Geffen,” says the producer with a sneer so pronounced, his sarcasm drips through the phone. “They didn’t know.”

They didn’t know.

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MAGNET Classics: They Might Be Giants’ “Flood”

TMBG

The making of They Might Be Giants’ Flood
By A.D. Amorosi

It would be easy to think of They Might Be Giants’ third album, Flood, as its absolute best. The 1990 release from the Johns—Linnell and Flansburgh—was their first on a major label, their first to be produced by name outside producers in a studio with all its incumbent frippery and, ultimately, the duo’s first and only album to go platinum.

“I can hardly describe how utterly in shock we were at how it took off,” says Linnell during a brief break from mixing one new TMBG album (the adult Glean, due this month) and recording another (a children’s album, due this autumn). “Maybe I still am.”

Beyond studios and sales, Flood has come to define the iconography of They Might Be Giants, as well as the tenor of the time. Seriously, who the hell knew or cared about Brooklyn before these guys broke out? What band in 1990 offered such a wide berth for the liberal use of accordions and Casios in the years immediately preceding grunge’s grouchy guitars? Or truly bothered with wit and childlike—not childish—humor? Or used the fez as a symbol of achievement? Or emphasized the arcane literary use of the unreliable narrator in its lyrics? Or could be kitsch without losing its cool? Or shifted from polkas to tangos to country music to surf rock to polka again, all while maintaining post-punk heft and contagious melodicism? Or gave breath to the historical notion of “Istanbul” not so much being “Constantinople” any longer?

From the ’60s talk-show chorale of “Theme From Flood” to the existentialist lullaby finale of “Road Movie To Berlin,” with references to Frankie Laine’s “Rawhide” (“Minimum Wage”), serious questions of bigotry (“Your Racist Friend”) and absurdist screeds (“Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”) in between, Flood is a bona fide odd-pop classic.

Beyond their klatch of children’s records (Here Come The ABCs, Here Come The 123s, Here Comes Science) and “Boss Of Me,” the theme to Malcolm In The Middle (Bryan Cranston’s series before Breaking Bad), it is Flood that Linnell and Flansburgh are best known for.

“I get that,” Linnell says of Flood’s epic luster and its capacity to define his work with his longtime boyhood pal. “Flood absolutely has all the elements of where we started and where we wound up.”

It’s not as if TMBG wasn’t the captain of tiny industry before 1990 and Flood. Named after a George C. Scott movie, the duo had been around since 1983 and moved from its role as house band at Darinka on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to a touring act within several years of being founded. This included gigs where guitarist Flansburgh and accordionist/saxophonist Linnell were accompanied solely by a drum machine and an Otari eight-track reel-to-reel tape player. Soon, TMBG created real hype—as well as a deeply personal connection to its growing fan base—with the duo’s home-cassette answering-machine-based Dial-A-Song project.

“I don’t think we used Dial-A-Song as any sort-of entrée to getting a record deal,” says Linnell, when quizzed about the possibility. “The thing kept breaking down. No, we used it to connect with the people who liked us. It really only ever advertised itself.”

Still, TMBG got a deal with the independent Bar/None label through Restless, and released two spare, quirky albums between 1986 and 1988—They Might Be Giants and Lincoln—each of which won its own levels of acclaim. The former yielded “Don’t Let’s Start” (whose video became an MTV smash in 1987), whereas Lincoln’s jittery “Ana Ng” topped modern-rock charts.

“I don’t think we were so much getting restless as we were feeling we could use help getting out there,” says Linnell of considering major labels in 1989. “We didn’t want to give up anything to gain something.”

“I couldn’t say we had a clear idea of what we wanted to accomplish going forward from that point,” says Flansburgh.

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MAGNET Classics: Tortoise’s “Millions Now Living Will Never Die”

Tortoise

The Making Of Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die
By A.D. Amorosi

Say the word “Chicago” now and you’re sadly spun to the surreal wrongs of a police force and a mayor who refused to acknowledge common decency and humanity when it came to the lives of African-Americans.

Chicago in 1990, however, was a different place—one known for the very real and very tactile work of collaboration, interplay and camaraderie that was its colorblind, free-jazz, freer indie rock and electronic scenes. “There never was any separation amongst musician crowds; everybody played with everybody,” says guitarist Jeff Parker, a longtime Chicagoan who played with Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble and other jazz outfits by the early ’90s.

This interconnected grouping of musicians—some coming from the testily experimental Bastro, others from odd rockist Eleventh Dream Day—birthed not only Tortoise and its still epic second album, 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The Sea And Cake, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Brokeback, Isotope 217, Califone, various permutations of Chicago Underground (Duo, Trio, etc.) and a dozen others basked in the glow of what was then called “post-rock,” an unfortunately titled movement given rise with Tortoise as its godfather and the fortunate Millions as its cascading, crowning achievement.

Listen to it now (reissued on translucent blue vinyl in January by Thrill Jockey, the label synonymous with all things Chicago 1990s), and it’s hard to believe that Millions is 20 years old. She sounds too old to be so young and too forward-fresh to be so aged. To steal a description from another Windy City wonder, the avant-jazz gods of Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Millions is the best example of being “ancient to the future” beyond that free-jazz group’s offerings. “Whether I played on it or not isn’t the issue; Millions really was pretty amazing,” says multi-instrumentalist David Pajo.

Millions Now Living Will Never Die—named for an essay penned by a Watchtower Bible And Tract Society president for the Jehovah’s Witnesses—was the very height of complex, progressive post-punk. These were beautiful, fluid melodies touched by post-bop avant-garde jazz, rich minimalism (its Steve Reich-esque vibraphone and marimba), dub (a producer’s vibrating echo throughout), krautrock (a motorik kick on “Djed”), Tropicalia, ambient electronica and Ennio Morricone-like expanse. Mood swings and deep emotions were conveyed in its subtle shifts in tonal color and texture, a subdued understated quality rarely heard in rock of any stripe. Millions was windier and darker than a Chicago winter’s night: gusty and spookily devoid of vocals. It was spacious yet tautly played, and playful—even cheesy, in spots. It was distantly European and cinematically American—Federico Fellini and John Ford all at once with an edge of workmanlike precision.

“Everything was about hard work in Chicago,” says Doug McCombs, the bassist for Eleventh Dream Day who initiated Tortoise (or “Mosquito,” reminds Bettina Richards, the one-time Atlantic Records A&R boss who signed McCombs’ first band for that major label before starting Thrill Jockey) as a Sly & Robbie-like rhythm section with drummer John Herndon, a one-time member of Poster Children. “This city always had this hard-working, blue-collar mentality where people just buckled down and got things done,” says McCombs. As far as art and creative music went, Chicago wasn’t ever a place for the peripheral. Rather, to McCombs, Herndon and the two musicians from Bastro (drummer John McEntire, bassist Bundy K. Brown) that Tortoise came into existence as in 1990, music was about “getting down to business—figuring out how do to what you wanted to do, and doing it,” says McCombs. “That was very much Tortoise, as well as that era’s musical community. Very fertile.”

McEntire, the drummer/producer who, at that point, had worked for Gastr del Sol and Freakwater, as well as Bastro, says that Tortoise came out of the womb in 1990 fully formed with a double-bass/two-percussionist groove: “At least as to what our aesthetic was, and the dynamics between how all of us would work.”

Yes, they were absorbing everything; from the work of Chicago’s varied improvisational scenes to their then-bourgeoning listening habits beyond the punk-rock milieu. “I was a kid around the time of punk who came up loving Television, X and Devo before moving into underground hardcore stuff like Black Flag, then jazz,” says McCombs as an example. Mainly, though, this Tortoise foursome (along with guitarist Parker) came together in close proximity when they moved into one large warehouse loft space at Grand and Wood Streets in Chicago. (Their current practice pad, for the last 15 years, is in that city’s Humboldt Park area.)

“The loft space made us into a gang, more than just a group of musicians,” says McEntire of the union with shared responsibilities and influences. “We were tight and hung out together all the time, for sure.”

Though he couldn’t join Tortoise as a touring unit because of his then-full-time jazz commitments in Chicago, Parker recalls that period with much laughter when he says, “It was a great time. I wasn’t technically in the band, but we were all roommates in that loft; everyone but Dan Bitney (the multi-instrumentalist who joined Tortoise in 1993). I knew all of their music because I lived with all of their music.”

After its first singles of 1993 (“Mosquito” on the Torsion label, “Lonesome Sound” on Thrill Jockey), a debut full-length (its eponymous album from 1994) and that initial LP’s remix project (Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, 1995), Tortoise was already set for a change.

“You could hear the makings of what Tortoise would become with the singles,” says Richards, who started Thrill Jockey in 1992. “The unusual instrumentation, the emphasis on different textures, the overall sense of lovely melody. The first album, too. I loved it. It would be revisionist history to say that everybody else did, but, critically, it opened up listeners and the press to what would come next.”

What came next was Bundy K. Brown abruptly leaving Tortoise toward the end of 1994, with Slint’s then-guitarist David Pajo joining the ensemble.

“It was circumstance; a slight shift, but a noticeable one,” says McCombs coolly of Brown’s departure.

“Everything was amicable,” says McEntire.

Neither McCombs nor McEntire had a problem with either prospect, as the bassist and drummer thought highly of both players immediately past and suddenly present, and recognized that Brown, like Pajo, had his own ideas of introducing more guitar into the band (though they each played more bass than anything else with Tortoise). “I think I tried to play—or thought of—the bass as I would a guitar,” says Pajo. “Everyone switched up instruments anyway; onstage at the beginning of a song; during recording if you wanted to. That was encouraged.”

Pajo was already a favorite of/inspiration to Tortoise from his work with Slint, themselves masters of oblong structure and sinister tonality on albums such as 1989’s Tweez and 1991’s Spiderland. Upon leaving Slint in 1992, Pajo was part of experimental indie-pop’s Louisville/Chicago continuum by working with King Kong, the For Carnation, Royal Trux, Will Oldham’s Palace projects and Stereolab—the latter a band that, like Tortoise, he found revolutionary for its time.

“In the early ’90s, grunge was everywhere and being a loser was cool,” he says with a chuckle. “I was a loser already, so I didn’t want to hear or play that stuff. Suddenly, there was Tortoise flying the flag for something different: two bassists, two drummers. Very cool. Yet very musical and so well-done.”

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MAGNET Classics: Grandaddy’s “Sumday”

Grandaddy1

The Making Of Grandaddy’s Sumday

By Jud Cost

Modesto, Calif. As a very young kid, I can barely recall seeing the name of that San Joaquin Valley town as I devoured the back pages of the “Sporting Green” of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Modesto Reds were a single-A minor league baseball squad that played in the California League, alongside outfits that included the Stockton Ports, so named because the town—located at the confluence of both the American and Sacramento Rivers—not only produced grapes for wine, but was the largest inland shipping port in the state.

But the Modesto Reds were special to a young kid then growing up in San Carlos, Calif. The Stuart family ran a drycleaning store on our main street, Laurel Avenue, that was frequently visited by that kid and his dad on Saturday mornings. I can still smell the wicked chemicals they used to remove the stains on that clothing. The Stuarts’ son, a strapping lad and a recent graduate of Sequoia High School in Redwood City, was now playing professional baseball for the Modesto Reds. We would get glowing, firsthand reports from the dry cleaners every week.

Their son would go on to hit a jaw-dropping 66 home runs for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ single-A farm team in Lincoln, Neb., in 1956. It was a staggering, Paul Bunyan-esque feat that would soon earn him a ticket to the big club, the National League’s cellar-dwelling Pirates squad. Yes, this was Dick Stuart, later to be known as “Dr. Strangeglove” for his defensive liabilities. But I saw Stuart play many times for the Pirates against the San Francisco Giants, brandishing his mighty offensive prowess to the point of getting nervous glances from a pretty decent Giants pitching staff that included Mike McCormick, Johnny Antonelli, Jack Sanford and Sad Sam Jones.

But the day I remember most might have been Stuart’s darkest hour, defensively. For some unknown reason, he was playing left field at the sparkling, new Candlestick Park (torn down just a few months ago) and came rushing in to cover what he must have reckoned was a pop-up. But the ball, hit by one of the Giants’ “beloved Willies”—either Mays, McCovey or Kirkland—went so far over Stuart’s head that it rocketed off the left center field wall for an easy, stand-up triple by the time he had retrieved the ball.

Quite a few years before that baseball gaffe, my mom and dad had stopped on a drizzly day at a roadside photo-stand in Modesto, on the way home from visiting my grandparents in Sacramento. They decided to have their little buckaroo snapped, waving a cowboy hat, supplied by the photographer, with the little shaver barely able to sit astride a stuffed horse, standing almost upright, à la Roy Rogers’ Trigger. That sepia-toned photo from old Modesto has been lost for decades. Large reward for its return.

Fast-forward 40 years to my then current MAGNET assignment to meet up with Grandaddy, a curiously named indie-rock outfit from Modesto whose early records on Seattle’s Will label were most intriguing. I first met the boys in the band late in the previous millennium, as they were packing up their fishing gear and brownbag lunches before heading out toward the Stanislaus River, not more than 20 miles away from home, in the general direction of Yosemite National Park, maybe 75 miles down yonder.

I hopped into the pick-up truck of Jason Lytle, Grandaddy’s resident genius, and we did the first of our many chats along with lead guitarist Jim Fairchild on a riverside picnic table as the rest of the boys in the band angled for trout. They caught a few, too, as I recall. Another such encounter also stands out: Lytle and I were about to chow down at a time-tested Mexican restaurant close to his home and spent some time discussing whether it would be wise to extract a spoonful of chili sauce from a jar that looked like it had been left on the table since the days of Pancho Villa. We decided to take a chance, and we’re still standing.

Standing was about the last thing Lytle could do after he blew out his ACL as an up-and-coming member of a professional skateboard tour. “I was actually pretty good, with a career planned out in front of me,” says Lytle. He turned to music to compensate for his loss, and the unique vocal sound he used to deliver his addictive melodies turned into an unexpected career move, for both him and four of his skate-rat pals.

Modesto is a fair-sized town located on both the jet-age I-5 freeway and rickety old Highway 99, rambling down the backbone of central California that stretches north beyond Stockton and Sacramento and south to Turlock, Merced, Visalia and Bakersfield. Those farming towns have become legend as the backdrop for John Steinbeck’s powerful novel, The Grapes Of Wrath.

Modesto’s inland location—80 miles east of the San Francisco Bay Area—deprives it of the “air-conditioned by God” afternoon breezes from the Pacific Ocean that cool down the big city. If you worship the heat, Modesto is your place. The large arch that spans the main drag seems to say it all to visitors: “water wealth contentment health.”

Lytle, who sang lead and penned all the material for Grandaddy in his extraordinary, fragile, cracked-eggshell voice, had nervously slipped a cassette to Howe Gelb after Giant Sand played a show at Slim’s in San Francisco. “I was blown away when Howe left an encouraging message on my parents’ message machine,” says Lytle. Gelb would become one of the band’s biggest boosters before Grandaddy was signed to V2 Records.

“Jason’s amazing, fragile voice—what can you say about it?” says Fairchild. “His voice is so uniquely his own.”

Make no mistake about it: Lytle created all of Grandaddy’s material in one or another of his homemade studios. He then fed his stuff to the rest of the band: Fairchild, drummer Aaron Burtch, keyboardist Tim Dryden and bassist Kevin Garcia. The band’s innovative sound was described to me by their V2 Records publicist as “a combination of Neil Young and the Beach Boys.” Lytle would later use money from V2 to buy a “cookie cutter” tract home next to Modesto in Ceres, whose “Dagwood & Blondie” facade (green lawn, white picket fence) concealed a pip of a recording studio that occupied the house’s kitchen, dining and living rooms. And, who knows, maybe even his bedroom.

The band began, Lytle recalls, somewhere back in the early ’90s, when he and red-bearded drummer Burtch played anywhere they were allowed: in coffee shops, skate demos, street fairs and house parties. Lytle almost didn’t recall that Burtch created the band’s farmyard animal imagery. “I’d almost forgotten what a great graphic artist Aaron is, and what a finely tuned sense of humor we had with our band website,” he says.

Lytle smiles crookedly when he also recalls he was the one who originally created Grandaddy’s slightly oddball band logo. “I remember distinctly the night I drew that up,” he says. “We had a lightning storm that night. Never underestimate the value of a good logo.”

Fairchild takes a somewhat larger view of the boss artwork created by Burtch: “We tried to make something distinctive for the Grandaddy website, and Aaron and Jason’s graphic stuff really did the job.”

Fairchild, always a huge Grandaddy fan, finally joined the band from his original combo, Sufferbus, in 1995. “Everybody knew that I’d hook up with Grandaddy someday,” he says. “I was always playing with Jason and the guys. At that point, the band was more like a street gang. We had people come up to us and say they were surprised that all five of us were still alive after some of the things we got into.” He politely refuses further comment on the band’s shady activity at that time.

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MAGNET Classics: The Magnetic Fields’ “69 Love Songs”

MagneticFields

The making of The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs
By Steve Klinge

The book of love has music in it
In fact that’s where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb
But I
I love it when you sing to me
And you
You can sing me anything
(“The Book Of Love,”
, Vol. 1, Song 12)

The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs is a tour de force: unprecedented, cheeky, sentimental and hilarious. Some of it is transcendental; some of it is ridiculous, if never really dumb. Before the three-CD set came out in 1999, the Magnetic Fields were a beloved cult band with a convoluted history of shifting lead singers, record labels and satellite projects. Stephin Merritt wrote songs full of wit and wordplay; he was as big a fan of ABBA, Phil Spector and OMD as he was of Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Cole Porter. With 69 Love Songs, the world discovered that secret.

Merritt originally conceptualized writing a revue of love songs to be sung by a variety of vocalists, akin to what he did with the 6ths’ 1995 project Wasps’ Nests, which featured contributions from indie-rock luminaries such as Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, Luna’s Dean Wareham and Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan.

“The conception of 69 Love Songs began with the idea of 100 songs, an industrial number, which got reduced a few minutes later to 69, the number of love,” says Merritt. “It began with a revue idea, but I realized I would have to record all the songs anyway, to teach them to the singers—singers can’t be bothered to learn how to read music; what do they do all day?—so I might as well just make it a record.”

Merritt was living in New York City, and each morning he would go to St. Dymphna’s Café in the East Village to write songs and drink tea; in the evening, he shifted to Dick’s Bar and cocktails for another writing session. He wrote a total of 100 songs, some after starting recording, and chose 69 for the album. His goal was to write as many different types of love songs as he could in as many different styles as he could.

“Ideally, each song would have come from a different universe,” he says. “I made long lists of musical genres, and picked the ones I could imagine myself working within.”

Thus: “Punk Love,” “Experimental Music Love,” “Love Is Like Jazz,” “World Love”; synth-pop, acoustic singer/songwriter ballads, Jesus And Mary Chain-like distortion, country songs and show tunes. And: “My Sentimental Melody,” “How Fucking Romantic,” “Kiss Me Like You Mean It,” “Crazy For You (But Not That Crazy)”; songs of wistful longing, bitter recriminations, sincere devotion, ironic exaggeration; homosexual, heterosexual, erotic, drunken, unrequited, eternal.

It’s an absurdly ambitious undertaking, but its ambition is part of its charm. Merritt friend Daniel Handler began work on his own ambitious project, the 13 volumes of A Series Of Unfortunate Events, around the same time. “They’re both hopeless cases, reckless gestures and overstuffed experiments,” says Handler of and the Lemony Snicket books.

Over the course of the 69 tracks, Merritt deconstructs the love song—the book of love—even though he acknowledges it is a foolhardy and impossible task. “The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure” tells the tale of a debate with the Swiss semiotician who claims not to know what love is because it offers “no understanding, no closure.” The speaker, however, objects and sides himself with the writers of classic Motown love songs. The song contains some of Merritt’s cleverest rhymes:

I’m just a great composer
And not a violent man
But I lost my composure
And I shot Ferdinand
Crying, “It’s well and kosher
To say you don’t understand
But this is for Holland/Dozier/Holland”
(“The Death Of Ferdinand De Saussure,”
, Vol. 3, Song 6)

Most of the 69 songs clock in well under three minutes, and as a whole, the set is a dizzying, many-splendored experience.

“Part of the variety-above-all approach to the album was that I cultivated deliberately conflicting aesthetic criteria,” says Merritt, “whereby if ‘Punk Love’ is a good song, ‘For We Are The King Of The Boudoir’ is unlistenable, and vice versa. I find Shakespeare and Ozu fascinating because they seem to contain the world, as opposed to setting a mood; and I figured three hours is longer than any one mood could ever last, so it would be far better to try to contain a multitude of moods. One of my models was an obscure orchestral record from 1960 called Music To Break Any Mood, by Dick Schory’s New Percussion Ensemble.”

When recording began, Merritt gathered the rest of the Magnetic Fields: his high-school friend and manager Claudia Gonson on piano and percussion; John Woo on banjo, lead guitar and mandolin; Sam Davol on cello and flute. Merritt played his beloved ukuleles and many other instruments, and Handler played accordion. Merritt sang most of the songs, but he drafted Gonson, Shirley Simms, L.D. Beghtol and Dudley Klute to each sing two songs per CD.

After three initial months of songwriting, most of was recorded in Merritt’s apartment on reel-to-reel, Pro Tools, ADAT tape or Gonson’s four-track cassette recorder over the course of nine months. Merritt tried out many of the songs in different styles, and some changed drastically along the way. Murderously funny duet “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” was one.

“When we recorded it, we sat down with a couple guitars and strummed it out, very plain and simple,” says Gonson. “So, I figured it would be a straight-ahead country duet in the style of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s ‘You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.’ Imagine my surprise when I heard the final mix and discovered Stephin had transformed it into a Jesus And Mary Chain song.”

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