Come gather ’round the campfire, the Magnetic Fields herald in their latest understated and folky presentation of 20 years of songs, as we sing of wolf boys, unrequited love, tea parties at the dollhouse and songs that sound like suicide notes. It’s a night of gentle-gentle music, much of it found on the latest Magnetic Fields album, “Realism,” the timbre of which is being employed on their entire catalog. Smart yet static, the show does more to reveal the flexibility of Stephen Merritt’s compositions than the strength of the new album.
Merritt, the conceptual head of the Fields, the 6ths, the Wasps and other acts, not to mention an aspiring theatrical composer, and pianist Claudia Gonson lead the band by alternating between his drollness and her sudden den-mother sparkles. At a perfect venue for their intimate music, a sold-out Wilshire Ebell, the quintet stayed seated in a row. With Merritt playing only ukulele and Gonson and autoharpist Shirley Simms partially blocked from view by music stands and audio equipment, there was no visual appeal.
But Merritt appeared to like it that way, even calling attention to his sense that some of the between-song banter with Gonson had gone on too long. The fragile arrangements demand that every song be placed just-so for the listener, an element that did not affect concert presentations of Merritt’s master work “69 Love Songs” or the more recent “I” and “Distortion.”
Merritt’s baritone met the challenge of the older tunes in Tuesday’s 28-song set — “69’s” “The One You Really Love,” “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” and the night’s most upbeat track, “I’m Sorry I Love You,” were standouts — but slipped a notch on the newer, pristinely recorded work such as “I Don’t Know What to Say,” a tune rooted in the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe in Me,” and “You Must Be Out of Your Mind.” “Interlude,” a track that could lead off “Juno II,” gets everything right.
The record’s folksy ambience obviously exists onstage, but the banjo that gives the “Realism” disc its charm got lost in the shadows in the live presentation. The songs have drama in the lyrics, but the musical presentation needs to greater reflect that quality.
Band closes the U.S. leg of its tour in New York at Town Hall on March 10, 11 and 12 before heading to Europe for two weeks of performances.