The Mnemonic Devices

by Johnny Winters
an article featured in The Wag, Vol I - No. 24, 23 Nov 1998

The Mnemonic Devices is a group which wouldn't have fit in at Wagfest. They are buried deep in Hattiesburg's underground, next to no one knowing that they have been around for two years, or that their creator--Rusty Spell--has created six solo albums under his own label (Love and Letters Music) as well as no less than twenty-two albums with the (at least) nine bands he's been involved in over the past eight years.

That's a lot of numbers. Of course, quantity doesn't count without quality, which there is plenty of in Rusty Spell's music, not just of the songs themselves but in the recording. When asked about this, Rusty said, "You know how people who record at real studios decide they want to be lo-fi and work real hard at getting that sound? Well, I am lo-fi--I have no choice. But I somehow manage to sound like I recorded at a studio." This something-from-nothing aspect has given Rusty Spell's productions a warm, personal, and totally original sound that many "real" bands aspire to.

Then again, quality doesn't help much without promotion. And the only way to really promote a band, everyone knows, is to take it on the road, something The Mnemonic Devices (and all Rusty Spell projects, for that matter) refuse to do. "I'm a big studio nut," Rusty explains. "I like writing songs, recording songs, and listening to them, never having to perform them again if I don't want to. I don't really like playing live, or travelling, and I would get bored doing the same songs year after year."

This boredom forces Rusty to continually create--each time reaching for something different, which makes it ironic that The Mnemonic Devices began as a band which blatantly emulated the recordings of Stephin Merritt's group The Magnetic Fields. Describing Stephin Merritt almost describes Rusty Spell: a young man who prefers to make music alone in his home studio, preferring not to tour, getting people to sing his songs from time to time, sounding rather bored, focusing strongly on lyrics as well as music, acknowledging musical heroes, all the while creating a unique soundscape which isn't quite like anything else.

A basic description, then, of The Mnemonic Devices: Essentially, Rusty limits this band's instruments to the keyboard, sounding sometimes like an indie rock version of The Pet Shop Boys, minus the dryness of Neil Tennant. His girlfriend, Debi, contributes vocals on a few tracks--writing lyrics now and then--but most of the songs are one hundred percent Rusty, his droning voice, and his electronic-yet-cozy fingerwork.

The Mnemonic Devices' first album, 20th Century Literary Problem, runs like a musical collection of short stories concerning boys and girls dealing with each other in the modern world who realize that--no--they're not dying of cancer, not suffering from hunger, not homeless, not abused... but their problems are just as serious, nonetheless.

The second album, I Don't Remember, ranges from one end of the relationship spectrum (as in the song "I Like You" in which the narrator sings, "Junior-highish as it sounds I just have to get it out: I like you") to the other (as in "Perfection," in which a woman dissatisfied with her seemingly wonderful relationship laments, "I know you're the cutest, you're the finest, you're a doll. And I know what the rule is, that the garbage comes on Tuesdays. And I am simply crumbling when you kiss and you adore. And I would feel much better if you'd slap and you'd abhor.").

The latest record, Midi Skirt, is all over the place, refusing to settle into one idea. "The Emperor's New Song" seems more like three or four songs mixed together; "Michael's Theme" is a sad piano instrumental; "Cacophony" is just that; "I've Got To Go" begins with what sounds like a woodwind section playing electronica, turning suddenly into a techno song--and there's even "Wedding March," which is exactly what you think it is.

As noted, The Mnemonic Devices don't play live, so you have a few options. One is to log onto the Love and Letters Music web page (http://ocean.otr.usm.edu/~rwspell/llm/) and listen to some sound samples (and read more about his projects while you're there). The other is to simply order (again, from the page) one of the albums and see what you think. Hopefully, this under-underground band will be worth digging for.


Copyright (c) Nov 1998 by Rusty W. Spell and Love and Letters Music