The Magnetic Fields | 3.6.10

Over the years, The Magnetic Fields have perfected a low-key, amusing live approach.

The Pageant, St. Louis, MO

 Never mind that the new Magnetic Fields album, Realism, is not that great, and their one prior, 2008’s Distortion, is maybe the worst album they’ve ever released; it’s just as fun as ever to go to a Magnetic Fields show. Over the years, The Magnetic Fields have perfected a low-key, amusing live approach, replete with strange opening acts, quiet music, and a polite, seated audience.

The last time I saw The Magnetic Fields live was in London in 2004 on their tour for i; they played a playhouse instead of a regular concert venue, and it seemed somehow appropriate. To see them perform live is closer to watching a string quartet play than a rock band—all of the members of the band stay seated, they don’t play very loud (if someone near you is even whispering, you’re in trouble), and focus is often more on their witty lyrics than the overall sound of the band. While that might sound kind of repugnant, it suits their music well—many songs that don’t stand out on their albums sound great live, such as 69 Love Songs’ “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!”

None of the songs the Fields played from Realism really stood out in this way, sadly, though the best songs on the album, “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” and “Always Already Gone,” were represented nicely. Band leader Stephin Merritt followed “You Must Be Out of Your Mind” with 69 Love Songs’ “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” a standout track on a standout record. In between “Out of Your Mind” and “Luckiest Guy,” Merritt dryly said, “This song [“Luckiest Guy”] is much better than that one [“Out of Your Mind”].” At least he knows.

That points to another reassuring thing about seeing the Magnetic Fields touring for a subpar album—even if they played all of Realism and all of Distortion all the way through, they’d still have to play another half-hour or hour to have a decent length show, as both albums are only about half an hour long. In other words, the odds are pretty good that they’ll play a fair amount of their older, better stuff. What’s more, Merritt has always been good about not just focusing on his newest album, or even his current touring band—almost every Magnetic Fields album was represented, usually by multiple songs, and even Merritt’s side projects like The 6ths and The Gothic Archies had their catalogues addressed with a couple of fun tracks.

The best tracks of the night, aside from “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” were both from 1994’s album The Charm of the Highway Strip—“Long Vermont Roads” and “Fear of Trains.” Sadly, the quality of those songs was matched by the playing of the two most grating songs from Realism—the abhorrent “We Are Having a Hootenanny,” which is surely the single worst song Stephin Merritt has ever recorded, and “The Dolls’ Tea Party.”

Opener Laura Barrett was not as memorable as prior openers for The Magnetic Fields—at the London show they opened for themselves, by playing for half an hour, taking a half-hour break, and then playing for another two hours. They famously had author Rick Moody read short stories as an opener on their tour for 69 Love Songs, too, so while Barrett’s musical style seems to fit nicely with the Fields’ (her music sounds like a parody of too-arty music, but she’s far less successful at it than Merritt is), her presence was still something of a letdown. | Pete Timmermann

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