Magnetic Fields plays pulses

Thursday March 1, 2012

HUDSON, N.Y -- Stephin Merritt plays a lot of instruments.

The force behind the art-pop band The Magnetic Fields isn't bragging when he talks about his repertoire, although he's been accused of that before. Instrumental talent doesn't interest him very much at all, in fact. He'd rather give props to the music-making objects themselves. Then again, how talented can you be at instruments like the microgarden, cracklebox or "triple slice" -- just a handful of the scores of electromechanical devices out of which Merritt coaxes pop songs?

"I love to give credit to the instruments," Merritt said during a phone interview. "I like instruments, and I don't care about instrumentalism, about skill on the instruments. I like instruments themselves."

The Magnetic Fields begins its spring tour in Hudson, N.Y., this Tuesday at Club Helsinki on Columbia Street, giving concertgoers the first live earful of "Love at the Bottom of the Sea," the band's 10th album, which will be released the same day.

Beginning with "Wayward Bus" in 1991, The Magnetic Fields -- Stephin Merritt's project with frequent contributors who now include cellist Sam Davol, banjo player/guitarist John Woo, and percussionist/pianist Claudia Gonson -- has been a fixture of indie/synthpop music for the past two decades. The band is possibly best known for its early ‘90s radio single "100,000 Fireflies."

"We're proud and pleased to be able to present such an iconic group at our performance space," said Marc Schafler, co-owner of Club Helsinki. "We're really looking forward to them launching their tour [here]."

The 15 songs on "Love at the Bottom of the Sea" are a taut net of Merritt's electromechanical instrument affection -- synthesizers are often the source of the highly danceable rhythms; other sounds derive from a wide mix of what the singer-songwriter calls "noise-generating machines."

In concert or on your headphones, though, Merritt doesn't recommend trying to figure out the source of the sounds. One song uses 40 instruments; in another, one long, soaring tone is actually a compilation of 15 instruments.

Some textures derive from the usual suspects -- cello, guitar, banjo and piano -- but that doesn't begin to cover it.

"I grew up with the ‘80s tropes of ‘My gender is none of your business,' and, ‘How I made this sound is none of your business,'" Merritt said. "So I do lots of gender playing in my lyrics, and lots of sonic play in the production. I want people to not care what the instrumentation is on a very basic level."

On the The Magnetic Fields' 1999 album, "69 Love Songs," Merritt listed himself as the player of the dozens of instruments whose whistles and whirrs contributed to the music; critics misconstrued the move as a showoff of his own talents, Merritt said, when all he wanted to do was brag on the devices' behalves.

Understandably, he's now somewhat gun-shy when it comes to enumerating the instruments, a task he said would take hours, anyway. Nonetheless, as a songwriter Merritt deeply adores, for example, the cracklebox. A wooden package Merritt described as "half the size of the Scrabble player dictionary I'm now holding," or twice the size of a pack of cigarettes, the cracklebox depends on the user inserting his thumb against two electrical points to make a circuit that produces a loud, shrill tone.

Then there's the Dewanatron Triple Slice, a "harmonic metamorphosis module" according to its makers, that bends the wave of a given sound three ways. Or try the Folktek MicroGarden, a larger wooden box out of which guitar strings fan, looking like blades of grass in the wind, that can be used to create warm soundscapes or percussive tones.

You can't play a scale on these amplified strings, Merritt said -- then again, you can't play a scale on most of the instrument-devices that constitute his favorite pastime.

"It's my only hobby," he said. "I have a house full of really quite odd instruments."

With such intricately wound sound textures, none of the 15 songs on the album run north of two minutes, 38 seconds.

To these efficient, deliberate mixes, Merritt adds anthem-esque lyrics (he and contributor Claudia Gonson trade off vocals) that playfully touch on his preoccupation with gender-bending.

Already available as a video on The Magnetic Fields' website www.House, the single "Andrew in Drag" is a classic example of this tendency: The tender, vaguely nostalgic song tells the story of a preppy, previously straight guy who falls hopelessly in love with a man dressed up as a woman: "There is no hope of love for me/from here on I go stag/the only girl I'll ever love is Andrew in drag."

There's also a song about escaping to join the fairies, and another about "my husband's pied-a-terre."

An homage to (or perhaps a farce of?) 21st-century gadget fetishism, "The Machine in Your Hand" propulsively insists: "I want to be the machine in your hand/and go wherever you go I don't know why I love you/you're not really a person/more a gadget with meat stuck to you."

Pithy and off-beat, Merritt's darkly comic lyrics sometimes scrape against the poppy grains of his instrumentation. But for a musician who loves to obfuscate origins, twisted words may be the perfect top-off to a song that's just beyond the listener's grasp.

To reach Amanda Korman:
(413) 496-6243
On Twitter: @mandface

If you go ...

What: The Magnetic Fields kick off their ‘Love at the Bottom of the Sea' tour

Where: Club Helsinki, 405 Columbia St., Hudson, N.Y.

When: 8 p.m., Tuesday

Information: Tickets sold out; call Helsinki for info.

Visit the band's website at to watch a video of the single ‘Andrew in Drag' from their new album.


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