The Magnetic Fields
Saturday, March 24, 2012
The Fox Theater, Oakland
Better than: Whispering at the library.
On Saturday, the Magnetic Fields gave the mellowest performance six people have ever given at the Fox Theater in Oakland. Well, anyway, that's how it felt: Like one long, precious, and very quiet run-through of the seemingly fixed setlist for the tour supporting Love at the Bottom of the Sea, a new album of brief, brainy pop songs that contains far more sonic variety and dynamism than Saturday's show would lead one to believe.
All-acoustic performances are the rule for the Magnetic Fields: Principal member Stephin Merritt suffers from a condition called hyperacusis in his left ear, making him extremely sensitive to loud sounds. So even though this band's two previous albums (Realism and Distortion) were in part formalist production experiments, and though Merritt has expressed some relief at returning to the use of synthesizers on the latest record, we heard no electric embellishments on Saturday.
Regardless of the limitations, the show brought plenty of quirkiness, which was often amusingly droll or otherwise captivating: Merritt making wry asides about "a nearby horrible horrible town that some of you may have been to," in advance of "Come Back From San Francisco," or the evocative sound that his subterranean vocal range produces at its lowest depths, as displayed during "Busby Berkeley Dreams." Merritt's sighing, otherworldly croak had some near me audibly gasping.
Onstage the musicians were as neatly contained as their sound: Merritt standing up in a newsboy cap, scarf, and brown suede jacket, occasionally fiddling with a box organ, and the rest of the band ensconced behind their pianos or guitars or other acoustic instruments (was that an eight-string ukulele?). The most exciting persona, by far, was Mag Fields pal and author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), who occasionally bounded about in his ridiculous red shirt while playing the accordion. He looked like a renaissance David Lee Roth taunting a court of librarians.
The setlist itself contained little drama -- for anyone who bothered to Google in advance, it was the same songs in the same order as the band played the previous night in Los Angeles: Heavy on cuts from the latest album and from the band's breakout, 69 Love Songs, with a few token tunes from other records and some of Merritt's side projects.
The dedicated fans with whom we attended found this particular grouping of 27 songs disappointing. But more important was what Saturday's presentation said about this band's unfortunate live limitations. Many entries in the Mag Fields catalog are masterpieces of lyrical wit (see "Andrew in Drag," "My Husband's Pied-a-Terre," and "Chicken With Its Head Cut Off," which had some in the audience, ourselves included, laughing out loud). But without the sonic adventurism and stylistic variety that fill out the recorded albums, all that's left is the band's dry humor and smart-alec punnery. On Saturday, that wasn't enough to make the Magnetic Fields' two-hour show feel like more than an exercise in intelligent mellowness.
By the way: Some of the band's quieter songs sounded great onstage; "Reno Dakota" was one highlight early in the set. "Plant White Roses" was also especially gorgeous. But two hours of quiet gorgeousness is too much.
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 Fairies
Plant White Roses
Drive On Driver
My Husband's Pied-A-Terre
Time Enough for Rocking
The Horrible Party
Smoke and Mirrors
Goin' Back to the Country
Andrew in Drag
Busby Berkeley Dreams
The Book of Love
Fear of Trains
You Must Be Out of Your Mind
It's Only Time
Smile! No One Cares How You Feel (The Gothic Archies cover)
Forever and a Day