Review: Magnetic Fields @ Town Hall 3/11/10

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.

A blurry photo...there was barely any PA and barely any light.
A blurry photo...there was barely any PA and barely any light.

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.

Nina Simone: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

Holy crap.  I just read this on BoingBoing.   Do everyone on earth a favor and listen to this youtube clip, then lets continue our discussion.

First off these are 2 artists with some of the most distinct voices in the world.  No one else will ever be mistaken for Simone, same goes for Dylan.  But the thing that constantly amazes me is how his songs really take on new life in the hands of other artists.  A few years back there was the film “I’m Not There”  where various actors portrayed Dylan at different periods in his life.  Now, not gonna lie, I didn’t have much interest in seeing Heath Ledger play Bob Dylan.  I did however, buy the soundtrack.  A double disc affair containing all covers of Dylan classics and lesser known tunes.

There are high points and low points just as with any giant film soundtrack.  Some of my favorites include a great Cat Power cover of “Stuck Inside A Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”  Backed by a crazy group of studio musicians including Lee Renaldo, Smokey Hormel, and John Medeski.  Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Calexico do a reverb soaked “Goin To Aculpoco”  reminiscent of The Band days.  Richie Havens doing “Tombstone Blues” and also from highway 61, Ramblin Jack Eliot does “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues”

From the ages of about 12-16, this was possibly my favorite album in existence.  The beginning of the electric years, Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Harvey Brooks in the band, Dylan at the top of his game.  Tom Thumb may consistently be my favorite track on there. Other than Ramblin Jack and Nina Simone, the only other cover of this song I had heard was on some Grateful Dead bootleg, and that just didn’t do it for me, so lets forget it ever happened.  Something in these 2 voices though (Jack and Nina)  really seems to make the song speak out.  The dylan version maybe has some bitterness to it, basically its like “screw you guys, I’ve had it with this BS”  Where as Simone’s seems more sentimental, and Ramblin Jacks is kind of “I’m tired of this shit, I’m out”  yet he’s not pissed about leaving.

This version though, literally heard for the first time about 5 minutes ago, I just can’t get over.  That piano against the conga rhythm sounds like the basics of hip hop right there. Kanye West is totally ripping this shit off in “Heard Em Say”.  The little lead guitar coming in has a little Sam and Dave, but pays the most direct homage to the original track.  The vocal though, how does something like that even happen.  Her rhythm is all her own, but perfectly fits into the track.  Who the hell else is gonna sing like that.  Lets not turn this into “nothing like this would ever happen today”  discussion..but ya know…nothing like this would ever happen today.  The production is so perfect I just want to go out and throw every computer in a giant bonfire and find a tape deck somewhere to record on.

This is one of the two greatest Dylan covers ever done, among the hundreds or thousands out there.  This one, and Allen Toussaints version of “Momma You Been On My Mind”  which I don’t think was ever recorded, but which I have heard live not once but twice, and will be in my head forever.  What is with soul singers and Dylan?  It just blows my mind every time.

Review: Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub @ Bowery Ballroom

Is it standard to write a brief apology when writing one of these blogs after a long absence? Well, I’ve been moving, so I apologize, my life has been in and out of boxes.  But I have left the cultural capital of the known universe (Jersey City) for a bit, and now reside in Clinton Hill Brooklyn.  Anyway, lets get to business.

Lanois 1

Daniel Lanois confuses me at times.  There is not much debate that he is one of the most significant producers of the last 20 years- He’s partially responsible for U2’s most memorable work and Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, that’s enough for me to buy anyone a sandwich.  His sound on record is instantly recognizable.  It’s as if you took only the good parts of 1980’s production, matched it with a gritty guitar sound, add some New Orleans style drumming, and put lots of delay on everything.  I would say he has created one of the great American sounds, but he’s Canadian.

Now it may be just me, but his solo work seems a tad self indulgent as of late.  While I am a junky for any documentary style film about studio recording, his film “Here Is What Is”, a companion film to the album of the same name, definitely included some parts that were like “Oh Hey, here I am, and this is why I’m awesome, and I hang out with Billy Bob Thorton”.  Don’t get me wrong, the album has a few great tracks, and the production is amazing, but it seemed to just be an experiment of him making sounds for the sake of sounds.  Now, is there anything wrong with that?  Not really…but I still feel torn about it.  His aim does in fact seem true, he hires great musicians, is mindful of the vibe of the whole album, does not use any digital workstation trickery…but there is something that just doesn’t sit right with me.

Last week was a prime example.  My sister and I went to see Lanois new band Black Dub at the Bowery Ballroom.  The main draw, in addition to Lanois himself, was Brian Blade on drums.  Blade is a straight up monster, and there is not one person alive who could argue this.  He has some magical power behind the kit, no note ever seems excessive, any beat he plays just makes you smile.  The entire front row was made up of drummers just trying to get a look at Blade.  More on him later.  The band was fronted, and kind of seems like a Lanois inspired vehicle for, Trixie Whitley- a young vocalist, who’s basically a model.  This is where it gets weird and confusing.

Lanois 2

Have you ever heard that old story of how some oil tycoon in the 1930’s rented out Carniege Hall so his wife could play piano there or something?  I think this is kind of like that.  Whitley is a capable singer…but is she worthy of a band of the finest studio musicians in the world and a tour to support it?  I’m gonna come out and say no.  She sounds like one of those girls you hear playing a set at Kennys Castaways who has an overly put on, immitation soul voice, singing an octave below her natural range trying not to sound like the tiny white girl she is.  I felt betrayed slightly.  She sounded kind of like a Christina Aguilera immitator, and looked like Taylor Swift.  Really Lanois?

Brian the shadows
Brian the shadows

On the stage were 2 drum kits, a keyboard, giant bass rig, pedal steel and guitar amp.  Lanois played one beautiful guitar the whole night, just one delay effect on it.  Blade had his drum kit, the bassist (whose name ecsapes me but was fantastic) also kept it simple…..Trixie had her own drum kit, which she futzed about with for a few songs, a keyboard which she played one song on and was barely audible, and a badass black Les Paul, which she played for one song, and only plucked a few notes.   Again Lanois, really??  First off, you have Brian Blade up there.  The only other drummer who has added something while playing with him, is Jim Keltner on Time Out of Mind, thats because he’s one of the greatest drummers of all time.  But this girl who can barely play?  WTF man.  To his credit, Blade took it like a champ, I don’t think its possible for him to sound bad.  Any time she got on the kit, he just kept straight ahead time, throwing in a simple accent fill when necessary, he’s like Bacon, he makes anything better.

Lanois Steel

But there was really no need for her to have a drum kit, or guitar, or keyboard.  Focus on someones strengths, which in her case i think were backing vocals, when Lanois took the lead on his hit “The Maker”.  Not awkwardly trying to play guitar, drums, or keys, it just took away from whatever she had.  The thing is….LANOIS HAS TO KNOW THIS!  He produced Achtung Baby!  And Time Out Of Mind!  COME ON MAN!  I really dont want to say it…he has to just want to bang her, or has to be banging her, something in that realm.  You know how when two people are talking, and one clearly likes the other, and the other clearly does not like that person back, and its kinda painful to watch?  This seemed a little like that.  Lanois would move his mic stand towards her, she would kind of just stand in the same place.  He’d hug her and shit between songs, it just seemed a little weird. During the encore, they finished their song, the plan seemed to be for Lanois to finish the show solo with guitar, and he was like “you wanna sing one more with me?”  and shes all “nah, you finish this one, do your thing”.  That seemed the equivelant of, “you wanna go get a drink after dinner?”  “Nah I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I need to be up early, I’m just gonna head home”  Tough break Lanois, Tough Break.

I guess he’ll just have to take solace in his millions of dollars, incredible talent as a producer and musician, and worldwide acclaim.  It must be a tough life.

Now my dilemma only continued a few days after the show when I spoke to my sister to ask her opinion.  She enthusiastically loved the show.  Now, we both loved the band, but she enjoyed the vocalist far more than I did.  Im pretty confused right now, and Im questioning all I believe is right and holy.  Maybe I’m being too harsh on Trixie, maybe in any other context I would have enjoyed her performance.  But when someone is presented to you with such a powerful band, I feel its accurate to raise your expectations.  And that is the story I am sticking to.