Stephin Merritt may be be the least likely person to ever front a band. A little schlubby dude, with a baritone voice, and a ukulele who never looks like he’s having a good time. He may also be one of the greatest lyricists ever. His songs can change from sincerely sentimental, to hilarious, to bitter and cynical from verse to chorus to bridge. His creative output may rival Ryan Adams, he put out the album “69 love songs” which contained…69 original love songs. These weren’t just throw away heartbreak ditties, there were some timeless classics on there. Also the album “I” on which every song began with…the letter I. This is no Lady Gaga Meatloaf Concept Record, again, it was full of great songs.
Their presentation is always delicate, usually all acoustic, with the exception of their album Distortion (based on my previous two examples, you can imagine what this one sounded like) rarely with any drums, the lyrics always take center stage. But when presented live, with many bands, intricate lyrical material can be problematic. How many times have you had a song ruined by a frat boy yelling something in the most quiet part of a song? Often, I’ll tell you that much. But for some reason, this doesn’t apply to The Magnetic Fields.
I once read in a review that the Magnetic Fields perform like they’re doing you a favor by being there. This is certainly true. To get around anyone talking, the band plays SO incredibly quiet. Quiet enough that if you whisper to the person next to you, everyone in the house can hear it. Maybe this is just their sense of humor. You want to talk during our show? Well smart guy, hows about we turn it DOWN!? It works though, rarely is a word spoken during the show. Their setup is Merritt on ukulele, a cello, acoustic guitar, piano, and autoharp, with the women playing autoharp and piano adding occasional vocals.
Last year they played the greatest venue in the world, the Historic Loews Theater In Jersey City. It was the perfect combination, a ghostly ancient theater, and the weirdest fold band ever. But last week, they rolled through town and played Town Hall in NY, a legendary venue among folk musicians…I mean come on, A Mighty Wind was filmed there. Again, the sound was as quiet as can be, the band barely miked, no theatrics at all.
Opening the show was Dewanatron. Yes, as the name might suggest, they were an electronic music duo- two middle aged cousin playing a dual modular synth. I mean, obviously, that’s what I was expecting. Im not going to kid with you here, they were awesome. It was completely experimental and nerdy, and was exactly right for the room. The low fi analog sounds, bleeps and bops, minimal 808 sounding drums, with 2 dudes who looked like middle school teachers, there was just something about it that was just right.
The Magnetic Fields followed with some classic jams. Well, not necessarily classic in the sense of hits, but classic in the sense that they were enjoyed by all. They’re one of the few bands that I feel like whatever I hear, its going to be ok. Merritt is more of a story teller than a singer. You’re going to be entertained, even if (or maybe especially if) you’ve never heard the song before. One highlight was “The Nun’s Litany” off Distortion, which on the album its a little hard to get the message of the song with all the ridiculous reverb and fuzzed out tones happening, but performed acoustic, it was hilarious yet somehow meaningful. With lyrics about someone wanting to be a Playboy Bunny, Topless Waitress, and Tattooed Lady, im not even going to try to figure out the meaning, but Im sure there is one in there if you dig even slightly beneath the surface.
They did not play my and everyone elses favorite song “The Book Of Love”, a song so magnificent Peter Gabriel covered it on his most recent album. But they did play my 2nd favorite jam, “I’m Tongue Tied” These may be 2 of the greatest love songs ever written. “I’m Tongue Tied” pretty much has the message “Im an idiot, but you’re great” which I like. Anyway, they changed the arrangement just so, maybe omitting one chord or something, that it gave the song a whole new musical feel, less traditional waltz like it is on the album, more country ballad. Both of which, I approve. Along the country lines, they closed with Papa Was A Rodeo, another song that rides the line between comedic and heartbreak (again, the analysis portion of this conversation is something we can discuss in person or at an intellectual dinner function, not on the blog right now)
After the show though, I found myself singing lyrics of songs I had never heard before (which in the case of The Magnetic Fields would certainly sound odd had I been singing them out loud on the subway.) If a lyricist can play you a song once, and you remember more than one verse and a chorus, they’ve succeeded. Merritt may write some very odd jams, but he is a true original.