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The Magnetic Fields, El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, 6/11/00

Although there is an enormous quantity of music that I really quite enjoy, I generally wouldn't recommend most of it to a broad distribution - however, this would be one of those rare exceptions. On the surface, though, the whole concept of the Magnetic Fields' '69 Love Songs' seems potentially fraught with problems - perhaps even doomed to certain failure. I can just hear it now...

"Let's make a collection of love songs - well, not so much love songs as songs which have love in some way as a subject - and let's release it on a small independent rock label."

"Just to keep things interesting, let's also change our musical style on just about every song - from crooning ballads, to a capella tunes, to a song with an 18th century Scottish dialect, to Erasure-esque synth-pop, to country, and let's overlay an ample stylistic slathering of musical theater."

"Oh, while we're at it, let's make it 3 CDs long."

But oh how it works. If you're going to be brave enough to crawl out on that limb and set the leaves uneasily trembling, you'd better make sure there's something substantially solid and steady that roots you to terra firma. That something is Stephin Merritt's brilliant pen, his sharp wit, and cleverly turned phrases.

"Acoustic guitar, if you think I play hard
well, you could have belonged to Steve Earle
Or Charo or GWAR
I could sell you tomorrow
so bring me back my girl."

Looking around the ballroom this evening, I was surrounded not by the devotees of musical theatre, but by the usual assortment of folks in indie-rock garb, the jeans ranging from neatly pressed to carelessly distressed, the vintage button-down shirts, the dyed hair, the generally comfy slacked nattiness, and because this is LA, the de rigeur platform flip-flops. But every once in a while, out of the corner of my eye, I caught something a little unusual for the club scene - a muscularly hulking green-goateed chap with matching nose, eyebrow, and lip rings with an almost teary, wistful, distant gaze as he silently mouthed the lyrics to "Come Back from San Francisco":

"Come back from San Francisco
It can't be all that pretty
when all of New York City misses you...
...You need me like the wind
needs the trees to blow in
Like the moon needs poetry
you need me."

What was going on here? The show sold out, the house was packed wall to wall with people, standing elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, patiently, quietly - no, not quietly - silently. It was almost eerie how intent everyone was on capturing each calmly subtle booming of Merritt's tenor voice, each of Claudia Gonson's sweet melodies, the trailing of her piano, the vibrous tones of the cello, the accordion, the guitar. I have never, ever been to a show where such a palpable reverence flowed so uniformly throughout the room. Could it be that after years of loud, squalling guitar assaults, cranium-shattering piledriving rhythmic blows, that the magic of well-written songs and beautiful melodies are once again capturing the hearts of the masses? Could it be?

"I'm a hopeless romantic
You're a terrible flirt
Cool and unfazed, you're always amazed
when someone gets hurt... sentimental melody
like a long-lost lullabye
will ring in your ears
down through the years
bringing a tear to your eye.

It certainly seems that way. In the second encore, Merritt on ukulele and Gonson a capella performed a duet version of "Grand Canyon", a tune which M.Doughty of Soul Coughing has been covering lately in some of his solo shows. After running through the two verses, they invited us all to sing along to close the show. No need. Unconsciously, we already were:

"If I was the Grand Canyon
I'd echo everything you say
but I'm just me
I'm only me
and you used to love me that way."

I apologize. I'm about to plant a little thought virus in your head - imagine yourself standing in a record store, or perhaps looking at one of those fancy online music e-tailers. Now imagine yourself buying the Magnetic Fields' '69 Love Songs'. There. Now you've at least considered buying it. You're all warmed up for your next real shopping experience.

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