Magnetic Fields – Born on a Train

This is second Magnetic Fields song to show up here, and like the last song we posted, its off of their travel-themed record Charm of the Highway Strip. “Fear of Trains” is a catalog of railroad-related historical horrors, but this is quite simply a song about living a restless life and being “born on a train.”

The illustrious minds over in the songmeanings.com commenting section seem to think this is about vampires, and though the lines about never getting old and the walking dead may speak to this, we’d argue its more about travel than the life of the undead. The black and white music video, featuring a girl wandering a city and a small train set, is quite good at matching the mood of the song, but it does little to support the vampire thesis.

The song largely fits with the theme of the record – of drifting aimlessly and the traveling life. The narrator promises to leave a lover at some point, because he’ll “have to go when the whistle blows” because “the whistle knows my name.” As he explains, “Baby I was born on a train.” Just as we’ve seen in other train songs, trains most often symbolize travel and restlessness. The song’s story of a failing relationship, and imagery of grey mornings, neon signs and walking dead, all speak to the ambiguities of a life on the move.

On a personal level, this song had special relevance to us while in the thick of dissertation writing. At times, we reached a level of obsession that had us feeling like we were also “born on a train.” The song, like most of their stuff, is also catchy as hell – good luck getting it out of your head!

The Arcade Fire did a pretty nifty cover of the tune as well – here’s the video for that:

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Black Twig Pickers – Cherry River Line

The Black Twig Pickers hail from Virginia and West Virginia and they specialize in resurrecting lost folk songs from the mountainous border region between these two states. A bit of an anomaly on the indie-oriented label Thrill Jockey, they boast a rich discography chock full of great arrangements of old-time music, and of course a veritable roundhouse worth of train songs. The music conjures up images of front porch jams and old country stores, and it drips with a level of authenticity that today’s suspender-clad hip new folk troubadours could only dream of matching. Indeed their record label’s site relates their reliance on first person sources, either actual songsmiths, or relatives, and even recordings dredged up from archives. To be sure, this is not the last time you will see this group here on this blog.

“Cherry River Line” is off their 2008 release, Hobo Handshake, and its a rather dark tune to say the least, and a reminder to this former metalhead that the old-time Appalachian ballads can often match metal when it comes to grimness. The vocals are in the back of the mix, allowing the minor-key instrumentation to shine through, and adding to the isolation of the narrator. Lyrically, its yet another train song about a failing relationship. The singer is “lonesome all the time” missing a girl on “yonder mountain” who took up with another man. He resolves to find another woman and the slow running train’s lonesome whistle matches his despair, He closes the tune by noting that while someday he may forget his former lover, he’ll never forget the Cherry River Line.

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The tune itself comes from the mountains of West Virginia. Far as we can tell, the “Cherry River Line” refers to an old spur line off the Baltimore & Ohio, a spur line that has now undergone a conversion to a rail trail. Mountain regions were usually the latest to receive rail service – from the looks of this map of the B&O system above, it looks as if the railroad got to this area (near the town of Richwood) by 1901. When the rails did arrive, it was usually the leading edge of an exploitative or even colonial arrangement hauling away wealth and resources, with little benefit to the local communities. Though the grievance that inspires this track is more personal, it should not be surprising that a railroad song from this corner of the mountains is so dark.

Further hints about the origins of this tune come from this clip of old-time fiddler Lester McCumber who recalls a friend of his used to play “Cherry River Line” so it “made the hair raise up on your back” and who discusses a few variations on the tune. There’s a profile of McCumber in the New York Times rom 1999 if you’re curious on reading more on his career. The story is testament to the authenticity of the song, so kudos to the Black Twig Pickers for resurrecting this great piece of history.

2013 Albums of the Year (Part 3)

After a holiday-induced delay, here are the rest of our picks for albums we liked this year:

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Lucero – Texas & Tennessee
Its a brief 4 song EP, but anything from Lucero is worth celebrating. This one even has a train song . In contrast to the more uptempo, horn-driven material on their latest 2 records, this is a stripped down acoustic affair. Its also worth mentioning we finally got a chance to see these fellows live in Asheville, and they did not disappoint.

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Restorations – LP2
Whether due to the move away from Gainesville, or just growing boredom with the genre, this was one of the few punk albums that really stuck in our playing rotation this year. Its sad and introspective stuff, a soundtrack to the tumultuous transition to early adulthood. The tempo shifts – from the meandering “In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe” to the rollicking “New Old” – add variety and diversity and helping it stand out from the pack.

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Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
The ghost of Pavement haunts this album of this indie band from Massachusetts. Crunchy slacker anthems that were a good fit for the period of crushing uncertainty we experienced while awaiting the conclusion of a torturous job hunt.

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Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
Some irreverent garage punk from Texas. Veers wildly between boastful/cocky jams and biting social commentary – another good encapsulation of life in your mid-20s.

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Water Liars – Wyoming
Everything this prolific group does hits us like a ton of bricks, and this was no exception. Their great tunes, crushing lyrics, and perfectly melancholic vocals sucked us in for a long time.

A 2013 recap list would also be remiss if it did not mention the sad passing of Jason Molina, mastermind behind Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. In case you missed it, one of our favorite posts we’ve done here was on the many trains that appear in his work. We’ll leave you all with this phenomenal bonus track off the 10th anniversary reissue of his classic album “Magnolia Electric Co.” We are hoping to catch one of the memorial shows feature members of his band and Hiss Golden Messenger when they swing through NC next month.

…And there you have it – a bunch of stuff we have been into this year. We are already eagerly anticipating new albums in 2014 from Titus Andronicus, Pallbearer, Agalloch, Alcest, The Drive-By Truckers, among others, so the new year should be a good one, at least musically speaking. On a personal level, its going to be hard to match the changes and transformations of 2013, but that’s probably a good thing.

And with the conclusion of this retrospective, we will back to our usually scheduled train song programming shortly.