The Magnetic Fields – The Wayward Bus / Distant Plastic Trees

Are you ready for some way-artistic shit? Because that’s what’s in store here in Magenta Field-land. It’s music as performance, but modern art instead of self-expression. This stuff is flat-out weird: an emotionless chanteuse singing beautiful melodies (written by the other dude in the band!) over the dulcet sound of extrememly cheap keyboards. Shit, this is some weird shit. 
But it’s not bad. Not at all! It’s actually quite lovely in its overpowering weirdness, albeit not really the kind of music you’ll play often. First, this is a compilation of their two earliest albums, which makes sense because they were both ~30:00 long. For no apparent reason, though, they switched the order of the two albums, so first you hear The Wayward Bus, their second album, then move onto Distant Plastic Trees (don’t tell them, but those distant plastic trees are also FAKE), their seriously weirder debut. But it’s all muy weird due to everything being done on $50 keyboards from the 90s. 
The first ten songs, the ones that comprise The Wayward Bus, are generally a Phil Spektor-fest. In obvious ways because “When You Were My Baby” sounds like “Be My Baby” (not just title-wise) and “The Saddest Story Ever Told” has a hook that sounds like “Then He Kissed Me,” and less obviously in that you can hear the “wall of sound” approach in that there would be layers of strings and horns. Of course, and I can’t say this enough times, all of the music could be played on a Super Nintendo and there’d still be room for a Street Fighter rip-off on the cartridge. The only real exception to the Spektorfest is the awful karaoke shit “Tokyo A Go-Go.” Of course, all the keyboards make everything sound like a $10 karaoke machine, but playing nice little love songs. The general sound is just too much to hear on a regular basis, though. I give it 6/10! 
In-between, there’s 4:33 of silence, presumably a John Cage reference, just in case you forgot what you were in for. Then we’re on to the second set of ten songs, the first ones put out by Stephin Merritt (even his name is wacky and elfin!), and this set’s even weirder! Hee! It’s hard not to be charmed by the aesthetic at first: the instruments are the same cheap keyboards, but the idea is minimalist. Most of the track have at most two or three “things” going on, and that’s counting the distant drum machine. The chanteuse (Susan Amway be her name) sounds better here, farther up in the mix and the lyrics more discernable (though not to any great effect this early in Merritt’s eercar). Still, it (mostly) doesn’t quite work. It feels rural, but it’s so lo-fi that it feels cheesy instead of affecting, because NOBODY’S RURAL GUITAR SOUNDS LIKE A MIDI FILE sorry about that folks. Ahem.
It’s probably just the sound getting to me, but with one mondo exception, most of this album is more curious than it is good (“Railroady Boy” is a keeper, though). There’s a song with a long title that rips off a better song later on the album, there’s a couple experimental track with even less going on than usual (usually just a bunch of swirly noises), there’s a fake country song that gets unintentionally funny despite a nice singing performance, then there’s more biding of time until the monumental “100,000 Fireflies,” a song so great that it belongs on a much better album. The song starts with the lines “I had a mandolin / I play it all night long / It makes me want to kill myself”, then gets artsy before concluding with “Why do we still live here / In this repulsive town? / All our friends are in New York.” It’s a ridiculous shot from next-to-nowhere, easily the most complete song on here, and a work of just silly amounts of feels and talent. It’d be a long time until Stephin and the Merritts came close again! 
The album ends there, because the makers subtracted the second best song on DPT, “Plant White Roses,” for reasons no mortal can ever answer. Makes me mad just thinking about it! I give DPT 7/10, but we’re rounding down to six because of said omission. Don’t reissue albums with album tracks removed, you weasels! But seriously, “100,000 Fireflies” is just wonderful. Don’t mind the awful keyboards everywhere.

6 / 10

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