i hate the sound of guitars

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The Magnetic Fields, Feb 14/15 2008

30 Mar 2008 · No Comments

The first time I saw The Magnetic Fields was such a profoundly moving experience that even after several years, I have trouble distilling a coherent description of what was so magical about it. It was very warm and human, almost disquietingly intimate — perhaps a bit like eavesdropping on the quiet evening gathering of a family who happened to be superb chamber musicians, and who included among their number a perfectly brilliant songwriter. I was also touched by Claudia Gonson’s request that the audience substitute finger snaps for applause so as not to aggravate Merritt’s hyperacusis (which also meant I could enjoy the show myself without recourse to earplugs). Before that performance (touring I, at Berklee) I liked The Magnetic Fields; after it, I loved them. After it also I numbered them among other bands whose live shows are often marked not just by extraordinary level of musicianship, but by a sense of community between the audience and the performers: Ida, Yo La Tengo, and very few others.

I appreciated many of I’s songs better live than on record. The stripped-down chamber music arrangements (ukelele, acoustic guitar, cello, and voice) left Merritt’s sparkling melodies and incisive and often very funny lyrics naked rather than masking them with layers of overdubs. (A live album from The Magnetic Fields seems unlikely, but I’d pay a pretty penny for one, for sure.)

I love the latest Magnetic Fields album Distortion, which swathes Merrritt’s compositions with washes of feedback and trebly, compressed drums not-entirely-unlike Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy (given Merritt’s hearing impairment, it seems likely he’s made an album he himself can scarcely stand to hear). But I was definitely eager to hear the soft acoustic cores of Distortion’s tunes . Since my wonderful girlfriend loves The Magnetic Fields at least as much as I do, it was a cinch that we wanted to attend both shows.

I’m glad we did. The Valentine’s Day show was a slightly off night for The Magnetic Fields; Merritt was clearly feeling under the weather, and there was at least one notable timing flub. Still, it was pretty magnificent. The surprise for me was that vocalist Shirley Simms has joined the touring lineup. Her voice has a harsher upper range than Gonson’s (not unpleasantly so; her timbre reminds me a bit of Neko Case) that expanded The Magnetic Fields’ harmonic palette substantially. The setlist ranged through other Merritt projects, like the 6ths, the Future Bilble Heroes, and the Gothic Archies. I was delighted to hear the magnificent, brooding, and funny “Crows,” from the Gothic Archies’ The Vile Village.

The second night Merritt seemed more comfortable and in better humor; the band was tighter. There were only a handful of repeat songs, mostly from the new album. Simms’ showpiece, “Drive On, Driver” was one of them. With the noise stripped away, it’s evident what a sturdily-constructed country song it is. Unlike earlier country efforts like “Papa was a Rodeo,” there’s nothing especially quirky about its lyric; I can easily imagine some Nashville star having a big radio hit with it. On both nights we were treated to Merritt taking the lead vocal on “The Nun’s Litany,” presumably saving Simms’ from potential embarrassment and/or catcalls that might result if she reprised her album performance of the nigh-pornographic lyric.

The Interstellar Radio Company opened both sets with radio-style dramatizations of two short stories, Poe’s classic, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (for Valentine’s Day, natch) and under-appreciated SF writer Robert Sheckly’s “Ghost V.” Actor Adam Green’s high-key, twitchy style was well suited to both stories (I can believe playing Dracula’s Renfield is his long-time ambition) but despite bravura stomp-box work from Green to simulate dialogue with a remote party, it was sound-designer Matthew Beals who really stole the show. He seamlessly melded old-school radio broadcast techniques with the high-tech audio processing power of an onstage laptop to frequently stunning effect. He went basic and traditional for the grisly bits of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” inspiring a ripple of audible revulsion through the audience even though everyone could see how innocuous his actions were. “Ghost V,” with its several fantastic monsters and other worldly setting, gave Beals some room to really go nuts with the computer. Streams are available at the Interstellar Radio Company site, but you’ll miss the fun of seeing the props arrayed and wondering, “what on Earth are they going to use that for?” and you’ll miss being impressed by how much isn’t down to clever digital manipulation.

Tags: 2008 · indie pop · live · m · somerville theatre

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