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Live Review: Magnetic Fields at Boulder Theater

Magnetic Fields Boulder Theater Wednesday, October 15, 2008 Better Than: Watching Chihuahuas act in films.

While Magnetic Fields’ latest album, Distortion, is coated in layers of reverb drenched Jesus & Mary Chain-inspired fuzz, there was none of that at last night’s show. It was a stripped down acoustic affair, and possibly one of the quietest shows I’ve seen ever seen at the Boulder Theater.

If anything, the hushed mood lent itself beautifully to Stephin Merritt’s brilliant lyrics in that the acoustic instruments (bouzouki, cello, guitar and piano) minus a drum kit made it easy to concentrate on Merritt’s words, whether they were sung by himself, Claudia Gonson or Shirley Simms.

Merritt or Gonson introduced a lot of the tunes by saying what they were about. Simple and short introductions like “Walking My Gargoyle” and “This Little Ukulele” were about Merritt’s Chihuahua Irving. Or “Crows” was a song about how horrible animals are, which was followed by “The Tiny Goat” that Merritt said was about how horrible animals are to other animals.

Aside from Chihuahuas being mentioned quite a bit during the banter between songs (Merritt even joked that someone could remake Lars von Trier’s film Dogville using all Chihuahuas), it seemed as though Merritt put a lot of thought into the 28-song set list (including a three-song encore). There were a few instances where it seemed like a character in one song might appear in another song. After singing about the gal who wanted to be a Playboy Bunny and a porno starlet in “The Nun’s Litany,” Merritt asked the audience, “What is she doing in the abbey? The year before…” And then the group launched into “All My Little Words,” which began with the lines, “You are a splendid butterfly/It is your wings that make you beautiful.”

After singing about Zsa Zsa in “Xavier Says,” Merritt said, “So after a gay bar, she goes off to have sex with dead people,” and then goes into “Zombie Boy,” a song about, well, getting it on with a corpse. “Everyone needs love, even when they’re dead,” Merritt joked after the song, at least I think he was joking. It’s hard to tell sometimes with Merritt’s deadpan delivery, whether he’s singing or speaking.

The five-piece pulled lot of material from Distortion, including some playful renditions of “California Girls” and “Too Drunk to Dream,” as well as some earlier material from the albums Holiday (“Take Ecstasy With Me”), i (“I Don’t Believe You”) and 69 Love Songs (“Book of Love” and “Papa Was a Rodeo”). The group also did “Dreams Anymore” from the 2003 film that Merritt scored, Pieces of April, which starred Katie Holmes and Oliver Platt.

Before the last song of the second set, Gonson said, “This is a song one of you probably played at your wedding” before playing “It’s Only Time,” which might have been the most beautiful song of the night. Gonson also said the song could be seen as the prequel to the anti-love song “Yeah, Oh Yeah!,” which they played just before “It’s Only Time.”

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Critic’s Notebook Personal bias: I’ve appreciated the Magnetic Fields albums over the years, but I didn’t realize what a great lyrical storyteller the guy was until last night.

Random notes: Claudia Gonson, who said she feeling a bit light-headed from the altitude in the betting of the show, felt a lot better after taking hits from the oxygen tank during intermission.

By the way: Opener Michael Hearst played some hilarious tunes from his Songs for Newsworthy News album. He’s also got an album called Songs for Ice Cream Trucks.

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