I seem to recall Canadian poprock iconoclast Gregory Pepper saying something about two minute songs. For him, anything more was surplus to requirements. But stitching together a meaningful short song is harder than it looks. Fools tend to rush in to verses and a chorus and run out of song before they know it. Today we feature two masters of the exquisitely short song, Stephen Merritt’s Magnetic Fields and Philadelphia indie pop combo 2nd Grade.
Like many people, I fell in love with Merritt’s work after just a few listens of 1999’s sprawling, three CD set, 69 Love Songs. The humour, the pathos and, most importantly, the hooks kept me hitting replay again and again. Since then he’s gone in a number of directions with his work (e.g. the rockier Distortion) but regularly delivers solid songwriting, often in abundance. Case in point, his recent 50 Song Memoir witnessed Merritt handling all the vocals on a project that documented each of his 50 years with a separate tune. Now MF are back with a brand new album and Quickies sees Merritt re-assembling the full band, complete with his usual collection of vocalists. The songs are short, definitely sharp and often shocking. I mean, only Merritt could craft a catchy number about “The Biggest Tits in History” or “The Day the Politicians Died” but both tracks really work, with smart lyrics and eminently hummable tunes. A song about bathroom sex? Got that covered on “Bathroom Quickie.” Merritt’s songwriting sometimes comes off like a stream of consciousness riff on his lifetime encounter with popular culture, like on “Kraftwerk in a Blackout.” And nothing is sacred, as is clear on “I’ve Got a Date with Jesus” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Beelzebub.” With 28 songs, I can’t go into everything on this record but like a deluxe box of Quality Street chocolates, there’s plenty to like here and a lot to savor. If you’ve liked past Magnetic Field efforts, you won’t be disappointed.
2nd Grade offer up what we might call a ‘two-four’ of songs here in Canada on their latest long player, Hit to Hit: 24 tracks, most clocking in at 2 minutes or less. As a songwriting strategy, it really works here. The material is snappy, fresh, vibing a bit of Apples in Stereo or recent Mo Troper. Ranging over the selections, the band are lyrically playful on songs like “Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider” and “When You Were My Sharona,” punk things up “W2” and “Trigger Finger,” or just offer up straight ahead poprock on “Shooting From the Hip” (with a touch of mid-period Fleetwood Mac here) and “Sunkist.” Tempo shifts include more low key folkie material like “Something I’ll Have to Remember” or the nicely Elliott Smith-paced “Maybe I.” My personal faves are probably the mildly urgent “Over and Over” and the seasonal smash, should be hit “Summer of Your Dreams.” But hey, with so many choices why settle on a strict ranking just yet? I’d recommend hitting random play and see what moves you. There’s a lot of serious goodness here to discover.
Short songs, long albums – variety! That’s what you’ll be getting with these offerings. It’s a nice twist on the usual thing. So check out Magnetic Fields and 2nd Grade’s latest magnum opi, live with them a bit, and see if you don’t just want to listen to them a bit more.