St. Vincent, Stephin Merritt Starring in ‘Bob’s Burgers’ Spinoff Musical Shorts

Fans of animated comedy Bob’s Burgers adore the show for a number of reasons—the weird family dynamics, the kids (especially adorable sociopath Louise and teen daughter Tina, with whom many viewers can probably relate), the punny burger names (“If Looks Could Kale” Burger) and the crossover Archer episode where a very self-aware H. Jon Benjamin played both characters.

One particularly lovely thing about the show is its roster of goofy original songs, which occasionally get cover treatment from Special Guest Stars—Cyndi Lauper appeared to reprise “Taffy Butt,” written for a Goonies parody episode, Megan Mullally performed the unsubtle “Oil Spill” as a Tori Amos-style singer and The National covered Linda Belcher’s Thanksgiving song in their typical broody style. Now, the animators of Bob’s Burgers are teaming up with some awesome musical guests to produce Bob’s Buskers, a web short series where special guest musicians like St. Vincent and Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields will cover the songs from the show.

The first episode stars an animated St. Vincent, covering a song from the Season Two episode “Bad Tina.” The track is written for the eldest Belcher daughter, Tina, when she becomes friends with a bad influence and expresses reluctance at her newfound badness—the song opens with the great couplet “Bad girls don’t wanna go to Dog Prom / bad girls don’t wanna pay for lip balm.” St. Vincent, predictably, tears it up, and things get even more awesome when Annie Clark discusses the butts Tina has seen at school and Tina subsequently joins in on the mop. Rock out.


The Pains of Being Pure At Heart Threaten Stability Of ’90s Music Wormhole

Have Brooklyn fuzz-poppers and acolytes of all things alternative rock from a decade and a half ago The Pains of Being Pure At Heart gone too far? Their latest 7” release has the wonderful audacity to cover “Jeremy”—thankfully, a song The Magnetic Fields put out in 1995, not that godforsaken Pearl Jam single. Believe me, I nearly had a heart attack due to a momentary conflation of the two.

Which brings me to my point: the ’90s renaissance is going just fine right now, but it’s only a matter of time before someone disturbs what should remain buried there. I’m sure none of us want to find out that Cee Lo is putting out a grunge album or that Nickelodeon slime turned out to be carcinogenic. Worst of all, what if everyone started drinking coffee at Starbucks?

Well, for the moment we appear to be okay. TPOBPAH’s (I am contractually obligated to use this annoying initialism with this band) version of Stephin Merritt’s “Jeremy” without the distorted harpsichord of whatever vintage instrument it features, is good, clean fun. Makes me feel like I know how to skateboard. But in a ’90s PSA about always wearing pads and a helmet when you skateboard. Oh god, we’ll never get back to 2012, will we. Not looking forward to having braces again.

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The Magnetic Fields’ “Quick!”: From Andrew In Drag to Trashcans In Love

When one hears the harpsichord-tinged strains of “Quick!,” The Magnetic Fields’ portrait of a relationship on the brink of ending, sung by Shirley Simms and Claudia Gonson, one automatically thinks of personified trashcans. Right? Right. Totally.  

English filmmaker James Spinney, best known for his acclaimed 2010 short, Audiobook, directs the clip, in which two trashcans find love in a hopeless place. As the YouTube description informs us, the bins are named “Ada” and “Blom,” two halves which form the name of an obscure 19th century American author, best known for her retrospective of ill-fated romances, The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub.

Back in March, BlackBook’s own Tyler Coates spoke with Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt on songwriting, Stephen Sondheim and the nature of genre, and he gave us some great gems. Among them was this nugget about his use of characters in songwriting:

“Most of my music is vague enough so that it can be my personal experience and someone else’s. It’s only when it gets to the pronouns and proper names that the character starts to emerge. When I’m writing a song, I don’t think of myself as creating a particular character, I don’t come up with demographic character traits most of the time. But ‘My Husband’s Pied-à-terre’ – the title came first and the rhymes led me along to the setting in an insane asylum so we don’t know what’s true and what’s not.”

Love at the Bottom of the Seais out now on Merge, and you can watch the amorous wastebins below:

In case you missed the video for “Andrew In Drag,” the (awesome) first single from Love at the Bottom of the Sea, here it is:

Comeback Kids: March Goes Out Like a Lion With Some Fantastic New Albums

The Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)
The Magnetic Fields bandleader Stephin Merritt, one of the great living American songwriters, has returned to indie label Merge, picked up his synthesizers, and released his strongest album in years. No concepts or overarching themes this time out, just a collection of 15 short, crafty pop songs (all under three minutes) from a master of the form. The song titles alone will elicit giddy grins from fans (“God Wants Us to Wait,” “All She Cares About Is Mariachi”). Merritt covers a fair amount of ground: clever synth-pop, of course (“The Machine in Your Hand” is about wanting to be a crush’s mobile device); a spurned lover’s revenge fantasy (“Your Girlfriend’s Face,” which the song’s protagonist has hired a hitman to, um, remove); country (“Going Back to the Country”); and Gary Numan–style ’80s new wave (“Infatuation [With Your Gyration]”). Almost every track’s a keeper, and the (very) few that miss their marks are over before they wear out their welcome. It’s the band’s most consistently entertaining album since 69 Love Songs, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

The Ting Tings, Sounds from Nowheresville (Columbia)
Manchester pop duo and Apple darlings The Ting Tings follow up their ubiquitous international hits “That’s Not My Name” and “Shut Up and Let Me Go” with a confident, polished collection of smart, sassy modern pop. Highlights abound: The twin chant-a-longs “Hang It Up” and “Hit Me Down Sonny” could pass for M.I.A. at her catchiest, and “Soul Killing” is an admirable stab at a ska anthem. Elsewhere, the album effortlessly shifts from the ’90s heyday electronica of “One By One" to the deft radio-ready pop of “Day to Day.” The spare, haunting closing track “In Your Life” ends the album with hushed vocals, acoustic guitar, and viola—a well-deserved cooldown after a half hour of uptempo, spirited fun.

School of Seven Bells, Ghostory (Ghostly International)
The third album from NYC’s answer to M83 is another inspired mix of electronica and early-’90s dreampop.The band is now a duo after the departure of vocalist Alejandra Deheza’s twin sister, Claudia, but the vocals here soar as effectively as on prior releases. Ghostory is a concept album (thankfully without the minor-key dirges or goth trappings its title might imply), but while close attention reveals a story  and the group’s trademark lyrical wordplay amid Benjamin Curtis’ swirling guitar textures, the individual songs are strong enough to stand on their own without narrative context. The propulsive opening track “The Night” is as good a song as any the band has yet produced, and “White Wind” packs a heavy, Garbage-like punch. Only on the trance-inducing “Show Me Love” and the percussion-less “Reappear” does atmosphere overtake songcraft.

Miike Snow, Happy to You (Downtown Records/Universal Republic)
Proving this Swedish trio’s stellar eponymous debut was no fluke, the self-produced Happy to You gamely picks up where its predecessor left off, with 10 more tracks of  sonically tricked-out, expertly crafted songs that stylistically fall somewhere between The Postal Service and MGMT. While no single track reaches the dizzying pop heights of “Animal” (the first album’s finest moment and one of the best songs of 2009), some (“Paddling Out,” “Pretender,” and “Archipelago”) come awfully close. The album as a whole is packed with an arsenal of production tricks, sound effects, and marching band brass and drums that will hold your attention throughout.

Nite Jewel, One Second of Love (Secretly Canadian)
L.A. singer Ramona Gonzalez’s sophomore album of hip, lean, laptop disco retains the D.I.Y. charm of her earlier recordings, which have earned her a legitimate cult following. The main difference here is the expected studio polish and her improved songwriting chops. Half of the album consists of hooky pop confections like “Memory Man,” “Mind & Eyes,” and the album’s infectious title track and first single, all benefitting greatly from the cleaner, leaner sound. The remaining half is more stark, minimalist, and experimental, and should appeal to adventurous ears—the kind of music enthusiasts who prefer their pop in quotation marks.

Bright Moments, Natives (Luaka Bop)
Multi-instrumentalist Kelly Pratt, who has played brass and wind instruments for the likes of Beirut, Arcade Fire, and LCD Soundsystem, has released a solo album on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, and it’s a charmer. Natives is a home-studio recorded confection of odd samples, warm vocals, keyboards, and Pratt’s trademark trumpet flourishes. The Kentucky native’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to recording fills out the album with all manner of nifty sonic details without making it sound cluttered, and the songs themselves are tuneful and melodic (Careful: You’ll have the melody of “Travelers” stuck in your head for days.) A promising debut.

Plants and Animals, The End of That (Secret City Records)
The Montreal trio’s third folk-infused, guitar-centric indie rock record has a raw, intimate, in-session sound, with Warren Spicer’s vocals way up front in the mix, suiting the material just fine. While the lovely harmonies that sweetened their Polaris-nominated debut album, Parc Avenue, are missed, understated acoustic moments like opening track “Before,” and the midway interlude “HC” nicely offset Crazy Horse–style rave-ups like “Crisis!” (featuring the priceless chorus “We’re somewhere between a crisis and a pretty good time”). The End of That manages the neat trick of sounding contemporary, even as it harkens back to loose, ’70s-style guitar rock, ragged in all the right ways.

Stephin Merritt on Songwriting, Sondheim, & Katy Perry

The Magnetic Fields return this month with a new album of familiar tunes. Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a return of to the synth-heavy sound and a continuation of the charming and sometimes morbid take on unrequited love. We talked to bandleader and songwriter Stephin Merritt last month — a phone call that took place on Valentine’s Day, which is probably the most perfect holiday to listen to a lot of The Magnetic Fields. The notoriously grumpy Merritt didn’t waste time to share what bugs him, but you may be surprised to know what he’s listening to these days. 

You’ve spent a lot of years writing love songs of some variety, but there has always been a theme of unrequited love. Why is that something you’ve focused on?
Well, unrequited love is more dramatic than requited love. And I have lots of first-hand experience of it. It’s an easy thing to return to. There’s so much to say about it.

You also return to a more synth-heavy sound. What sparked that return?
Well, it’s not really that something caused the return as much as something caused the deviation.

Because your albums have been so different, does that create a challenge when putting together a live set? Do you group things together by album or by sound?
Well the live show has nothing to do with the sound of the album. We don’t have a drummer and we have no rhythm section. We play acoustic instruments and we have no amplifiers on stage. So there’s only one album we’ve done that sounds like that which is Realism and even when we did that, the instrumentation was quite different.

Have you ever been at all interested in recreating the sound from the album in a live setting, or do you really prefer the small–
No. I don’t see the point in playing live – it seems just like a record only worse. But then I don’t really see the point of playing live in the first place. I guess to sell T-shirts.

Has it always been that way? Have you never enjoyed it?
I don’t like live music as a counterpart to recorded music. I don’t go to concerts, I don’t enjoy them. Except classical music. I go to recitals basically. I don’t go to amplified shows except unfortunately Broadway musicals, which are hideously over-amplified.

Do you see musicals frequently? You’ve written a lot of musical theater pieces. Do you keep up with that sort of scene at all?
Yeah, I see all the musicals.

Do you have any recent favorites?
I saw Merrily We Roll Along a few days ago. It’s a beautiful score. The underlying Kaufman and Hart play has a ridiculously arcane structure which undermines it, but the score is fantastic. Just sort of ignore the plot and listen to the music.

Have you been inspired by musical theater composers when it comes to writing songs for The Magnetic Fields, or is it sort of separate?
It’s pretty separate. It’s hard to be inspired by Sondheim while writing your own act.

Sondheim has such a playful way of writing lyrics, and I was wondering if that ever influenced your lyrics with Magnetic Fields, too. Because your lyrics are very funny and deadpan, and especially in the broad genre of indie rock, there’s a real lack of humor.
I don’t know anything about indie rock, but I know a lot about Sondheim. If there was a dearth of indie rock bands influenced by Sondheim, I’d listen to indie rock. When I think of indie rock, I think of The Supremes. So I’m especially invested in the idea of indie rock. I like Melvin Johnson but it doesn’t mean I espouse his views.

It’s sometimes hard to avoid using that term.
You can just call it Pitchfork music. When I was a teenager, REM was considered college radio, and there was an idea in people’s minds that there was such a thing as college radio music. So they started College Music Journal, and that seems to reinforce the idea that there was a genre of college radio music. But now I don’t think anyone has that idea. People like to make up genre names every once in a while. The people who make dubstep are exactly the same people who were making drum and bass — it’s just that they don’t want to call it drum and bass anymore, or jungle, the American word for drum and bass. Genre is a tyranny in music and it’s usually imposed from without.

It’s easy to assume that a person singing a song is singing about themselves, but your songs are mostly about characters.
Most of my music is vague enough so that it can be my personal experience and someone else’s. It’s only when it gets to the pronouns and proper names that the character starts to emerge. When I’m writing a song, I don’t think of myself as creating a particular character, I don’t come up with demographic character traits most of the time. But “My Husband’s Pied-à-terre” – the title came first and the rhymes led me along to the setting in an insane asylum so we don’t know what’s true and what’s not.

There’s a lot of gender ambiguity in your songs. Do you think that attracts a diverse audience?
I’d do anything to keep things ambiguous. I don’t want to feel like the audience is listening to my biography, why would I do that? If I want to confess I’ll go to a therapist.

So you sort of see it as more storytelling as songwriting?
Sure. I was actually thinking yesterday about as aspect of Abba that I have not fully appreciated before which is their vast diversity of characters that they write. And sometimes that’s directly connected with musical theatre and in fact they have done a few musicals. But it’s also connected to folk music. Most folk songs are not, “I love you, baby,” but, “He loves her and then he killed her.” Most folk songs are in third person and they’re about stories and characters and intrigue.

It seems not a lot of people are writing songs like that anymore.
Well, Katy Perry writes in character all the time.

That’s true. I was trying to think of pop music that has a sort of sense of humor and her stuff is really the only thing I could think of that is so very rooted in humor and maybe a little bit with Ke$ha, too. They’re both sort of playing characters as opposed to just singing ballads.
Gangsta rap consisted entirely of characters. That’s like horror movies – you don’t expect them to be autobiographical.

Do you like the Top 40 sensibility?
I listen to Top 40 for hours everyday when I’m writing songs. So I’m extremely familiar with it but I’m not always familiar with the artist’s name. I don’t see the videos; I just hear the music. A year can go by with me not having any idea that the video corresponds to the music. Even when I do see the videos they’re usually with the sound off.

When do you start touring with the new album?
We tour in North America and Europe until May.

Do you stick to a general set list with the tour or do you mix things up each night?
Not doing that this year. We’re just doing a single set.

The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt: From Music Man to ‘Meerkat Manor’

Initially, Stephin Merritt’s somber basso profundo is unsettling. And although he’s not the kind to mince words, everything he says is so well-considered that extended moments of silence make you wonder whether something you’ve just said is heretic, or worse, stupid. But then you realize that The Magnetic Fields/The 6ths/The Gothic Archies/Future Bible Heroes frontman is, even in mid-conversation, is verging on his next stroke of brilliance. His latest such display — an off-Broadway adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline — began at the West Village’s Lucille Lortel Theatre last week. And so, Merritt carved out a little time to discuss the three-dimensional triumphs of the stage and men in gorilla suits.

How are you doing? I’m exhausted and working too much. It’s going very well. Today is my day off theoretically. Unfortunately I don’t have a prepared piano at home. I don’t know that I’m going to be able to do anything useful.

How did this project come about? I asked other people to come on board. I got the rights from Neil Gaiman. I was already friends with Neil when Coraline was written. He asked me to do the music for the audiobook. So I wrote the song “You Are Not My Mother and I Want to Go Home.” The instrumental versions and the full song, at the end of the audiobook. I hired the writer and the director Leigh Silverman.

What was it about the story that appealed to you? It has an “anything goes” quality to it, with lots of magic and inexplicable phenomena. So your belief is already suspended if people burst into song. I negatively identify with Coraline. My upbringing was strange. I was on the outside looking in. Coraline has the opposite trajectory. The overly normal to the overly strange. We moved around all the time and we never stayed in the same place for more than a year or two, and we didn’t have kitchen utensils and that sort of thing. The symbols of domesticity were absent from my childhood. Whereas they grow on trees in Coraline. I used the symbol of middle class living with the piano. When Coraline sings, she’s accompanied by a toy piano.

What’s the trickiest thing about composing the music for the play? Working with a prepared piano in a theatrical context is very difficult. A prepared piano is a piano in which you’ve put rubber, screws, playing cards in between the strings, apart from the normal noise. It’s all about notes, sounds. Different form each other. You can’t actually transpose. You can’t write for a prepared piano on a normal piano. You don’t know what the notes are going to sound like.

Did you feel any expectations to uphold from the success of Coraline‘s film adaptation? We like to think to say that our 3D is more realistic, is absolutely perfect. And our actors move effortlessly. Aesthetically, the differences between doing off-Broadway musicals with prepared piano score and a stop-motion animation movie in Hollywood are so far apart. I saw the movie. I think it’s my favorite 3D movie ever. It has basically nothing to do with my job.

Did you find that working with the music steered you away from the plot? I think atmosphere is a big part of Coraline. It’s not so much the specifics of the plot. The demented potential horror of this other mother and the mysterious quality of her world. You really have no idea what she’s capable of. She turns out to be a serial killer among other things.

What was the easiest thing? Neil Gaiman has the ability to be a crossover artist. I read the graphic novel that came out last year. This makes a perfectly good graphic novel! When I read the graphic novel, I realized. These are all different completely different audiences. I probably know all the people who are going to see the musical and have read the graphic novel. A few hundred and I’d probably know them all. We just need a few thousand people to come. With a graphic novel, we need a few thousand people to buy that. The book was a runaway best-seller.

What else would you like to turn into a musical? But all of these audiences are tiny compared to one television show. I don’t see any trouble with that. If I were adapting a TV show into a musical, I’d be intimidated by the howling mass of the audience. I discussed doing Ingmar Berman’s Scenes From a Marriage. Five hours long. But I think that would be more opera-style. It’s unrelentingly tragic. But that’s my kind of television. I watch TV if it’s on DVD. I have seen several seasons of Meerkat Manor. I wonder if there have been any theatrical rights for Meerkat Manor. There could be the original footage of Meerkat sung along to. Or people dressed as meerkats singing.

Wouldn’t that be a whole lot like Cats? Not if I did it.