Let’s go out on a limb and pretend that Pixies are progenitors, albeit ultimately distant relatives to, the Seattle hard rock scene (that eventually got coined “Grunge” in one sweeping blanket moniker) as Magnetic Fields are progenitors to the web-driven ubiquitous winsome hipster sound that could just as easily be filed under capital “i” Indie music in the late first decade of the 21st century.
And just as the Pixies, in their necessity driven compositions, eluded ever being included in the Grunge categorization, Magnetic Fields will never be called Indie the way that such mainstream breakouts as Feist or OK Go! might. Yes they are signed to Merge Records who also carry Wye Oak and Archers of Loaf, but Magnetic Fields are as independent as they come, often recording at their home studio and have continued to write perfect winsome leids that somehow always avoid feeling disingenuous, faddish or trite in spite of their cleverness or honey-soaked sentimentality.
Lined up in a straight line across the front of the stage at the beautiful Orpheus Theater in a grungy part of old downtown Los Angeles, the quintet managed to create terrific dynamic musical dimension with use of a grand piano, ukulele, acoustic guitar, cello and a melodica and harmonium played by baritone and comedic straight guy Stephen Merritt whose voice doubles as a bassoon in the near-orchestral arrangements the band evokes from this modest instrumentation.
A selection of songs that spanned their career, from works going as far back as their 1991 debut Distant Plastic Trees through 2012’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea the set was over in an hour and a quarter and felt like half that. A pair of pre-planned encore numbers closed out a goosebump inducing collection of works sung by the three different singers in the band. “We haven’t taken a request in a over a decade” quipped Merritt in response to calls from the reverent audience for old time favorites.
Claudia Gonson, the band’s pianist, singer and manager seemed very relaxed in a pair of white running shoes, sipping from a steaming cup of coffee and seemed to get a lot of enjoyment singing her sordid song about ways to get revenge on spiteful ex lovers.
Shirley Simms, ukulelist and second of the singers, was a true standout with her slightly raspy but oboe-like voice, bringing an exciting rhythmically aware cadence to the songs she sang that worked in counterpoint to Gonson’s laid back approach.
Stephen Merritt, ever the understated but self-aware genius, managed to keep perfect pitch in vocal ranges far too low to be human with tear-inducing renditions of Book of Love and Busby Berkeley Dreams.
John Woo on acoustic guitar is both a machine, barely moving as he played 140 BPM arpeggios, and sonic maestro as he evoked alien ambiance with a slide and some simple pedal effects.
Sam Davol on cello did much more than add counterpoint or pizzicato, often creating sound effects (what sounded like cars on the freeway during “Goin’ Back to the Country”) or complete rhythm sections.
Too soon it was over and with a simple wave the bi-coastal masters of the two-and-a-half-minute love song, that are really secretly erudite examinations of all the complexities of our modern world, were gone.
Though this may read like a puff piece, it is really just a letter of thanks to the band for a soul-refreshing event that proves, no matter what you throw at something in production, song and lyrics will always win out over all other factors and linger in the mind and heart long after the fads have dissolved into the nostalgia markets.