The Magnetic Fields: The Charm of the Highway Strip

Rahul Gairola

The Magnetic Fields

The Charm of the Highway Strip

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 1969-12-31
UK Release Date: 1969-12-31

The challenge of confining oneself to choose a single album that is the "best" from one's collection is an insane project. For most of us, mood swings, relationships, friends, life events, and other myriad factors combine to render to our tastes what the "best" is -- the "best" must be contextualized within a specific moment in one's life, the "best" album like Polaroid shot of how one musically sees oneself in a given moment. But the common bond between factors like mood swings, life events, etc. is the necessity for change, dynamism, and growth. This is why, with much hair-pulling angst, I'd have to say that the best album I am plugging into my ears these days is The Charm of the Highway Strip by Stephin Merritt's band the Magnetic Fields.

There is nothing like the memory of a roadtrip (which can often be more palatable than the real thing since memory can mysteriously revise itself as it peers backwards), the essence of which Merritt captures on this The Charm of the Highway Strip. The album is reminiscent of driving all night, stopping by 7-11 for a large Mountain Dew, and later taking a piss behind a barn beneath a sparkling canopy of stars in the middle of nowhere. This is a brilliant album to hear while on the road, and indulges those of us who love to drive in an ethereal experience of lush sounds tailored to invoke nostalgia. But it is not just the nostalgic overtones, romanticism of the road, or Kerouacian sensibility that makes this album so great. It features an eclectic collage of sounds that are refreshing and daring as they emanate a Twilight Zone feel.

"After all those days / On godforsaken highways / The roads don't love you and they still won't pretend to" croons Merritt on "Long Vermont Road". A gem on the album, the lyrics sweep listeners from the Mesa Verde located in a passenger's eyes to the urban sprawl of Kansas City straddling the Missouri/Kansas state line. The melancholic yet beautiful realization that the road can be a heartlessly fleeting landscape is also echoed on "When the Open Road is Closing In", which describes the dizzying effect of "time -- measured in dotted, yellow lines" converging on the asphalt ahead. "Born on a Train" recalls of the early sixties sounds and percussion used by the Ronettes ("Be My Baby") and the Crystals ("Then He Kissed Me"), and erupts into a grandiose explosion of musical movements that seem to travel in different directions.

These songs allow one to sense the homage Merritt pays to music veteran Phil Spector, who produced work by a number of hallowed sixties musical acts. Contrasted against songs that overtly reverberate sixties percussion styles are numbers like "Two Characters in Search of a Country Song", which combines the hysterical playfulness of Ween with the gentle yet powerful lyrics and vocals of Peter Murphy. Also a twangy little cowboy jingle, "Fear of Trains" gives one the feeling that President Bush's favorite rodeo venue is down the block (albeit that his is not something poised to make listeners nostalgic). Other highlights include "Sunset City", "Crowd of Drifters", and "Lonely Highway", which opens the record with the lyrics: "I am never going back to Jackson".

Since music aficionados excavate and apprehend different memories at different moments for varying reasons, some of us will definitely bond with the lovely elegance that makes The Charm of the Highway Strip such an amazing and original album. But whether one listens to the album to self-induce nostalgia or simply to sample the brilliant instrumentation of Stephin Merritt (whose other bands include the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, and Future Bible Heroes), there is no doubt that the sounds and themes the album offers will leave listeners feeling pleasantly refreshed. After all, isn't that what taking a piss on the side of the road under the stars is usually like?

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.