Monday, September 19, 2016

They Are The Gothic Archies

Longtime readers of this blog will not need to be told that 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields is one of my favourite albums ever. I bought the triple CD set in Bristol in 2009; I was there for a university open day, but I managed to squeeze in a trip to Fopp before catching the train home. I spread the album over a whole weekend, listening to Volume 1 on Saturday morning, Volume 2 on Sunday morning, and Volume 3 on Saturday night. I Don't Believe in the Sun, Papa Was a Rodeo and Promises of Eternity were among the instant stand-outs, but I quickly learned to love all 2 hours and 52 minutes of it. It established Stephin Merritt as one of my favourite songwriters, and I've since delved deeper into his work: I now own all the Magnetic Fields albums, plus several other discs released under other names like The 6ths (Hyacinths and Thistles), the Future Bible Heroes (Partygoing and Eternal Youth), and plain old Stephin Merritt (Showtunes).

However, somewhere along the line I realised that 69 Love Songs hadn't been my first taste of Merritt's musical talents after all. In October 2006, a few years before that trip to Fopp in 2009, I bought an issue of Uncut magazine that came, as all issues of Uncut magazine do, with a free CD featuring tracks from some of the latest new releases. One of those tracks was Crows by a band called The Gothic Archies.

I liked the singer's bewitchingly deep voice and his knack for a clever internal rhyme (example: "Every day we hear the same dumb list of those crows' woes"), but for whatever reason I didn't bother to investigate The Gothic Archies any further. Only much later, when I had fallen in love with 69 Love Songs and was digging around to see what else its author had created, did I twig that The Gothic Archies were yet another Stephin Merritt side project, just like The 6ths and the Future Bible Heroes.

It was my 25th birthday last month, and Vicky very kindly bought me a copy of The Tragic Treasury, a compilation of the songs Merritt wrote for his friend Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events audiobooks. Now, almost 10 years after I heard Crows and Merritt's deep-as-the-ocean voice for the first time, I finally have the full album from which that track was culled.

So what does it sound like? Kind of like a slightly ill Magnetic Fields album. Wonky synth sounds are prevalent (my favourite track is the beautiful This Abyss, which is covered in a layer of buzzy keyboard that fairly soars), although there is plenty of variety to keep the listener interested: check out the accordion-led toybox clatter of opening track Scream and Run Away or the longer, Voltaire-ish When You Play the Violin.

Merritt's gift for lyrics is here in force, and he's clearly having a blast with the subject matter - behold this excerpt from the aforementioned Scream and Run Away:

"The goal of
Count Olaf
is taking control of
The fortunes
Of urchins
And orphans
Hooray - I mean, 'horrors'
Count Olaf is no laughing matter
When you see Count Olaf, count to zero
Then scream and run away
Scream, scream, scream and run away
Run, run run run run run run
Or die, die die die die die die die"

It's often quite daft, but if - like me - you can scarcely contain your anticipation for 50 Song Memoir (the new Magnetic Fields album that is due out in 2017 and will hopefully run close to 69 Love Songs in quality as well as length), then The Tragic Treasury may just help to tide you over in the meantime. Frankly, every song this man writes has some gold in it, so you can't go far wrong in any corner of his sprawling repertoire.

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