Back in high school, one of the highlights of the year was the month of bowling in P.E. class. I’m not a bowling enthusiast, nor was I in high school, but I relished the chance to leave the confines of the school for an hour each day to throw a heavy ball down a slippery lane. For some reason, the teachers also allowed us to play songs on the old dusty jukebox in the corner. The bowling alley hadn’t invested in a modern CD playing jukebox just yet, so the song list consisted of the classic two song per artists offering.
While most students would toss quarters into the juke to hear the likes of Shania Twain and Guns N’ Roses, my friend Matt and I would arrive with pockets full of quarters to play a more obscure artist. No, it wasn’t the juke’s new arrival, Soundgarden’s “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun”. Our choice was Billy Rabbit. Yes, Billy Rabbit. Never heard of him? Well, based on an extensive Google search, no one else on Earth has either. Billy Rabbit was featured on the jukebox for one simple reason: he sang “Happy Birthday”, the perfect song choice for a bowling Birthday party. But we didn’t choose Billy Rabbit’s “big hit”. Instead, we’d pick the second song offering, “Today is Such a Very Special Day”, a song we figured no other patron had ever played before. In a move of what I would describe as either teenage angst or prepubescent dick-hood, we’d fill the machine with every quarter we had scrounged up and play “Today is Such a Very Special Day” over and over and over again.
For the next hour of bowling, the entire class would glare at Matt and I from the other lanes as the song played on repeat. There would be a moment of quiet hope when the song came to a close, and then they would all exhale in disgust when the opening chords to “Today is Such a Very Special Day” returned. I loved that month of bowling; my classmates, not so much.
I hadn’t thought of Billy Rabbit or his sophomore hit for years, but recently the memories of that sing-songy chorus came rushing back to me while listening to the song “We Are Having a Hootenanny” off of Magnetic Field’s latest album “Realism”. This is not a good thing. While Stephin Merrit claims the new album was an aim toward a folk album, it resembles the type of musical fare you’d hear on Nick Jr. With songs like “The Doll’s Tea Party” and “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree”, you can’t help but wonder what Merrit was aiming for here. I can understand having fun with your music, but do you have to release it as the next Magnetic Field’s album? Seriously. He could have made it an endearing side project or made a special guest appearance on “Yo Gabba Gabba!”. But why taint the Magnetic Fields name with your tinkering?
We’re talking about the same Magnetic Fields who released the critically acclaimed “69 Love Songs”, a three album opus comprised of, you guessed it, 69 love songs. This is the Magnetic Fields who created questionably the greatest road trip album ever in “The Charm of the Highway Strip”. This is the songwriter, Stephin Merritt, who has been followed for the past ten years by a camera crew for a soon to be released documentary on his music.
No, I’m not missing Merrit’s point on this album. Yes, his lyrics are smart, but not that smart. You can’t blame the guy for not wanting to write any more love songs, but why must he jump from love to tea parties? I do find humor in a lot of his offerings here, but not in the usual high-brow Merrit fashion, rather a chuckle of “why the hell is Stephin Merrit singing about a hootenanny?”
Fortunately, he didn’t completely hold back his pop genius for the entirety of the album. “I Don’t Know What To Say” could fit alongside Magnetic Field’s classics with the addition of that simple drum machine that has always been a vital part of the band’s sound. In fact, there are only two songs that feature actual drums. The opening song “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” is Merrit at his finest and is probably the best song I’ve heard so far this year. But just as you are warmed up by Merrit’s voice, track two rolls in with a nasally female voice destroying any semblance of joy. Why the female singer Stephin? People want to hear that baritone groan damn it!
Here’s “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”:
The last Magnetic Field’s album, “Distortion”, found the band’s music venturing into the world of garbled fuzz, making me wonder if Merrit is just bored with his synthesizer. Maybe he’s going through the same type of musical soul-searching that Neil Young underwent in the 80s when he started experimenting with rockabilly and the vocodor.
I also wonder about good old Billy Rabbit. I wonder where he is now. I wonder why he doesn’t exist according to I-Tunes and the internet. And I wonder if maybe there was a Merrit-like genius inside of good ol’ Mr. Rabbit that never got the chance to shine. Or maybe that jukebox was a magical machine a la Zoltar in “Big”, and Billy Rabbit never existed at all.