Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Love Hurts

If there ever had to be a musician who was actually physically hurt by audience applause, there's no better choice than Stephin Merritt. He's got hyperacusis, an ear disease that makes loud noises even louder, so when his band Magnetic Fields finishes a tune and the audience applauds, he winces, his hand to his left ear and its earplug. It's as if providing something worthy that then evokes joy causes him pain.

Seeing Merritt live, as I did last night at the Music Box in Los Angeles, it's easy to wonder if it does emotionally, too. After all, he's drier than the world's finest martini, even giving Claudia Gonson, his longtime musical compatriot and friend, a hard time about nearly everything she said, and she said a lot, as she seems a chatty sort and someone has to carry the stage patter portion of the band's show. He's ever the editor, ever the one needing perfection (as one of his lines goes, "I've got a sense of perfection, and nothing makes much sense at all"); when Gonson announced a tune from their album i by saying, "All the songs begin with the letter 'i,'" he quickly corrected, "All the titles. Only some of the songs."

But his persnicketiness didn't rule or ruin the evening. Partially because he had a Snicket with him, of the lemony variety--Daniel Handler was on hand to play accordion on several cuts, and in fact performed "Scream and Run Away" from the Tragic Treasury solo, with some audience participation near the end of the song. We got to stamp our feet and run away, and to die (we got to choose our own hoped-for position to expire, and then take it). Turns out it's hard to shift quickly from running and dying. Especially when you're giggling in-between.

And then there's the sheer lusciousness of his songs and their witty-to-a-fault lyrics. Live, no matter how his songs are recorded (and his latest album, Distortion, bathes the tunes in Jesus and Mary Chain inspired noise), they get the chamber pop treatment--there's that volume problem, after all. But stripping them down to guitar, piano, cello, and bouzouki (that's what Merritt strums these days, although it's new enough that Gonson kept talking about his ukulele) let them shine. For an acidic cynic, the guy sure can write a memorable tune. That's even the joke, it seems. When the group did a shimmeringly beautiful version of "All My Little Words" from the epic 69 Love Songs, the intertwining of Gonson's voice with Shirley Sims' made you think the lines, " Not if I could write for you/ The sweetest song you ever heard /It doesn't matter what I'll do /Not for all my little words" you had to wonder--what the hell does this "unboyfriendable" lover want? This is the sweetest song I've ever heard. And then you know love sucks and the song is all the more heartbreaking. Makes you want to wax poetic about the sublime, but you don't as you know exactly what a withering look Merritt would send your way if you did. Sucker.

If you want to hear a 2005 Magnetic Fields' concert, check out this NPR link.

And if you want to see Merritt create a song in 2 days, another NPR production, check out this link which has a nifty video.

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Blogger Drew said...

Music hurts the musician. Poetic, George.

We went up to Noise Pop in SF this weekend, and had every intention of seeing the Magnetic Fields show on Friday, only we found out semi-last minute that they'd filled up on press people and the general tickets were sold out. I was a little heart-broken. Despite being one of my favorite bands, I have yet to ever see them play live.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Did he play "Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side"?

Love that one.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Rickey Henderson said...

If Rickey may interject... Rickey has tagged you for the following meme. Act accordingly.

6:02 AM  
Blogger George said...

Mike, alas, we weren't that lucky. Dudley Klute sings it on the CD, and maybe no one else can hold that last long note? Of course, live Merritt loves switching things up; for instance Merritt himself--even with Shirley Simms there--sang "Nun's Litany," which made it even funnier. You can see him do that here.

11:58 AM  
Blogger ahab said...

I'm severely jealous of you seeing this show, George, but I'm not sure I love the new album. I've only given it a couple of partial listens so far, but it's not an immediate grabber. Not for me, anyway.

Stephen Malkmus has a new album out too, as of Tuesday (it's only $10 on Amazon), and I'm hoping to catch his DC show at the end of the month. I've never seen him live, but I've got to believe his act is a lively one.

2:07 PM  
Blogger George said...

Yeah, as soon as I saw the show announced I pounced on tickets.

I know what you mean about Distortion--the fuzz is off-putting, as he wants it to be. But there are the usual great Merritt songs hiding under the noise. Another good reason to see him live and figure that out. Let songs like "California Girls," "Too Drunk to Dream," and "Courtesans" be you way in. (The last one in particular plays with, not against, its reverb.)

I hope the Malkmus is good. His solo albums have been pretty spotty--I always love a couple songs (well, I only really liked them on Pig Lib), but there's always stuff that leaves me cold, too. Here's a review of a show in January 2007.

2:38 PM  

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