Friday, April 30, 2010

The Magnetic Fields - Live 2010.03.30

A month after the fact is better than nothing, right? Well, before I got really busy in April with international travels, I caught a relatively recent newcomer to my musical radar live in my current home town.

Artist: The Magnetic Fields
Venue: Mousonturm
Location: Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Date: March 30, 2010

First Set:
01. Kiss Me Like You Mean It
02. You Must Be Out of Your Mind
03. Interlude
04. The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side
05. Better Things
06. I Don't Want to Get Over You
07. Acoustic Guitar
08. The Nun's Litany
09. I Don't Really Love You Anymore
10. I Don't Know What to Say
11. Shipwrecked (originally recorded by The Gothic Archies)
12. Suddenly There Is a Tidal Wave
13. Walk a Lonely Road
14. I'm Sorry I Love You

Second Set:
15. Xylophone Track
16. Long Vermont Roads
17. The Dolls' Tea Party
18. Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget
19. Always Already Gone
20. All the Umbrellas in London
21. The One You Really Love
22. Night Falls Like a Grand Piano (originally recorded by The 6ths)
23. Fear of Trains
24. I'm Tongue-Tied
25. We Are Having a Hootenanny
26. From a Sinking Boat

Encore:
27. 100,000 Fireflies
28. Papa Was a Rodeo

Review:
I heard about the Magnetic Fields a long time ago, but for some reason I never pursued them further. It happens. We all make mistakes. Later I went to college and and half of my friends never stopped spinning the triple-disc 69 Love Songs. And one day I saw the whole box on sale at a good price, so I bought it. I've never regretted that decision.

Anyway, I had the pleasure of catching them on their European tour to promote Realism, which I neither own nor have heard in any part. They played at a medium-small theater in Frankfurt-Bornheim; there were probably a good 300 people there. My first thought was, "Woah, this is where all the alternative people in Bankfurt go!" Instead of an army of suits, I was mixed in with people with crazy hair and clothes with actual style. It was quite refreshing.

There was no opening act; the band just played two sets. They were no drums or crazy beats; Stephin Merritt suffers from hyperacusis and even covers his ears when the audience claps. The instrumentation was fairly constant: Shirley Simms sang and played autoharp; Claudia Gonson sang, played keyboard, and occasionally played auxiliary percussion; John Woo played acoustic guitar; Sam Davol played cello; and Merritt sang and played ukelele.

The setlist included most of the new album, plenty of tracks from the band's biggest album (69 Love Songs), and a handful from very early albums. To be honest, I'm really only familiar with 69, but I was quite pleased with the song selections from the album. "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" and "I Don't Want to Get Over You" were great, but they sounded quite different than their synthy, heavy-reverb guitar and drum album versions. It worked, though. The melodies and all the parts were all there, just on different instruments. And Merritt's deep bass sounded perfect – I can't believe how well he can hit such low notes. (Maybe I just say that because I'm jealous.)

It wasn't just the instrumental parts that got swapped around – vocal parts were as well. Merritt didn't sing "I Don't Want to Get Over You" on record, and both the female vocalists took parts originally sang by other singers. This was never blatantly obvious, in the sense that nothing sounded "wrong" or particularly strange. I think the quality of the tunes and lyrics carries over extremely well to about any set of instruments and voices, as long as their respective performance quality is up to par. And with these musicians, that's certainly the case – I don't think I heard a single significant mistake the entire night. There were some technical problems, but that's another story.

I think the Magnetic Fields function so well because of the incredible combination of top-notch pop with great lyrics. The music is not straight-up traditional pop; the band likes to experiment around and their albums have plenty of odd sounds, but the lyrics are top-notch. I hate love songs and yet I love Merritt's lyrics, which usually focus on love or death. No matter how ironic or bitter or harsh or flippant, the lyrics are always delivered with a straight face and a perfect intonation. That's impressive.

These songs are not, in terms of technicality, all that complicated, but there are plenty of exceptions. Several songs feature complex interwoven parts, and the musicians were capable of letting loose and tossing out cool solos and lead bits. The best example was "Acoustic Guitar", which is just Gonson on vocals and Woo on guitar, and Woo did the entire thing note-for-note perfect, and considering some of the fancy little runs and fingerpicking patterns, I wouldn't rate that as easy.

After 26 songs (including two from Merritt's side-projects) and some two hours of music, the band gave a great encore: "100,000 Fireflies" from the band's first album and the ballad/storytelling duet "Papa Was a Rodeo". A nice rocker might have been even cooler, but the slower-paced finished was pleasant enough.

Score: B+

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