Review by Greg Haymes
On the day that cult chamber-popsters the Magnetic Fields released their new album, “Love at the Bottom of the Sea,” last month, they celebrated by kicking off their national concert tour at Club Helsinki with an utterly delightful performance that left the sold-out, jam-packed crowd simply enchanted.
“Thanks for being our guinea pigs,” pianist Claudia Gonson told the audience, who couldn’t have been happier.
Led by the delightfully droll singer-songwriter Stephin Merrit, who spent the evening alternating between a harmonuium and a melodica, the acoustic quintet managed to squeeze a whopping total of 27 songs into their 90-minute show. And that was actually rather expansive, considering that the average length of the tunes on their new album is just a mere two minutes and 15 seconds.
As usual, the Magnetic Fields managed to pack quite a wry, witty punch into their pithhy little ditties, thanks in large part to Merrit’s sublime and clever way with lyrics that are chockfull of twists and turns, double entendres and evocative imagery. Broken-hearted metaphors abound in the pop music world, but rarely do you hear such unexpected and utterly endearing lyrics as “My heart’s running ’round like a chicken with its head cut off.” Or “Love is wrapped around my heart like a boa constrictor.”
There were a couple of revenge songs, too – “Your Girlfriend’s Face” (sung by ukulele player Shirley Simms) and “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre” (delivered deadpan by Gonson from behind the grand piano) – that might have sounded unbearably violent if the lyrics hadn’t been wrapped around such bouyant, old-school Tin Pan Alley-pop melodies.
Most of the heavy lifting in the musical department was delivered by acoustic guitarist John Woo (who occasionally doubled Gonson’s piano parts to magnificent effect) and cellist Sam Davol (who teamed up with Merrit’s harmonium to create an woozy background drone). Merrit’s deep vocals – often evoking Lou Reed, Nick Cave or Bryan Ferry – often provided the low-end foundation, but without drums or bass to anchor the music, the rhythms sometimes turned rag-tag and wobbly. Fortunately, that seemed somehow perfectly appropriate on such off-kilter tales as “The Horrible Party” (featuring Merrit on kazoo) and the back-to-nature hippie song “Goin’ Back to the Country.”
It was a major coup for Club Helsinki to snag the opening night of the tour, and the show was sold out a month in advance. Maybe the Magnetic Fields would like to come back to wrap up the tour there, too?
Bachelorette – the nom de stage of New Zealand singer-songwriter Annabel Alpers – opened the show with a hypnotic solo performance that was dripping with new wave-vintage electro-pop – from the throbbing, big-buzz backbeat of “Blanket” to the gauzy, reverb-drenched swirl of “Love Is a Drug.” She accompanied herself on a pair of laptops, the occasional shake of a maraca or the tap of a tambourine and dreamy, drifting vocals, all looped together into a sparkling sonic tapestry.
THE MAGNETIC FIELDS SET LIST
A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
Your Girlfriend’s Face
Come Back From San Francisco
No One Will Ever Love You
I’ve Run Away to Join the Faeries
Plant White Roses
Drive On, Driver
My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre
Time Enough for Rockin’ When We’re Old
The Horrible Party
Smoke and Mirrors
Goin’ Back to the Country
Andrew in Drag
Busby Berkeley Dreams
The Book of Love
Fears of Trains
You Must Be Out of Your Mind
It’s Only Time
Forever and a Day