Sunday, August 31, 2014

Track of the Week: Wire "Map Ref. 41 N 93 W"

I love living in New Jersey and working in New York City, which has become by far my favorite city in America.  That said, I am a child of the Midwest who lived there until the ripe age of 32, apart from a year in Germany.  I haven't had the chance to visit my homeland this summer as I usually do, and some conversations with old grad school pals online have conjured up memories of fields and fields of Illinois corn ready for harvest.  On Friday I watched the Cubs-Cardinals game on TV, on Saturday I caught some Prairie Home Companion on the car radio while running errands.  Needless to say, I am missing the region of my birth and young adulthood.

I tried to think of songs about the Midwest to talk about this week, and realized that one of the most unique songs about its landscape came not from John Mellencamp or Jeff Tweedy, but from Wire, a postpunk band from Britain.  As outsiders to this country they wrote about something that people see but don't think much about when flying cross-country.  Looking down over the Midwest the fields are laid out like checkerboards in a sort of breathtaking symmetry.  Many Easterners criticize that view, thinking it speaks to Midwestern dullness or colorlessness or whatever stereotype they want to foist on the place.  I see a kind of beauty, and Wire did too.

This is one of those "should've been a hit" songs.  It didn't help that it had such an unwieldy, but oh so fitting title.  Only a band like Wire would name one of their catchiest songs after a global positioning point, emphasizing the symmetrical nature of the land below them.  The song itself comes from their third album, 1979's 154, which showed quite a mature progression from the flat-out speed punk of their debut, Pink Flag.  Scratchy guitars and whispy synths create the same air of foreboding mixed with wonder that I always get on an airplane.  The band's punk roots are evident with the off-putting and angular sounds and how singer Colin Greenwood self-consciously intones "chorus" right before the background vocals for the chorus come in and give the song a poppier feel.  There really isn't much out there in the world like this, and though the sound is not what most people associate with the Midwest, it evokes the feelings I get looking out of the window of an airplane as it's descending into Omaha.

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