Although Stephin Merritt writes some of the most meticulous and sophisticated songs this side of Stephen Sondheim and Lorenz Hart, Saturday’s Magnetic Fields concert at the Wilshire Ebell Theater unfolded in a disarmingly casual manner.
Taking the stage with a minimum of fanfare, the New York quartet spent around five minutes settling in, shuffling papers, adjusting monitors, gesturing to each other. “We don’t like to start shows,” Merritt deadpanned, “we’d rather just banter.” The leisurely paced evening was filled with banter, as pianist and singer Claudia Gonson played comic foil to Merritt’s modern-day Oscar Levant, discussing the careers of Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, Myrna Loy’s performance in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” and proper topics to discuss while performing in Florida.
That doesn’t mean the music was given short shift. (To get an idea of how seriously Merritt takes his craft, when some members of the sold-out aud applauded the start of “Book of Love,” he stopped the song and admonished them for stepping on the song’s humorous opening line.) Stripping the electronic percussion from the already spare arrangements of “i” (Nonesuch) moves songs such as “I Don’t Believe You” and “I’m Tongue-Tied” from updated Tin Pan Alley back to early 20th century parlor songs.
Given the songs’ deceptively simple melodies, it’s not hard to imagine families sitting around their piano singing the tumbleweed ballad “Papa Was a Rodeo” or sitting raptly to Gonson’s sweetly yearning vocal on “Kiss Me Like You Mean It” (although the lyrics’ 21st century sensibilities might give them pause). The metallic, nickelodeon plink of Merritt’s ukulele, John Woo’s banjo and guitar along with Gonson’s spinet piano and Sam Davol’s cello added to the music’s old-timey patina. The barely there amplification, which almost forced you to lean in to hear the music, added to the evening’s intimacy, as did Gonson and Merritt’s amateur theatrics during “Yeah, Oh Yeah!,” ending with Gonson dramatically falling off her piano bench.
Moments such as this took some of the focus off Merritt. Sitting off to the side on a bar stool, a resigned sigh waiting underneath his baritone vocals, complaining about the bright lighting onstage, he was a reluctant frontman. But songs as sharp and witty as these provided more than enough spark and personality to compensate.