Magnetic Fields span catalog at GWU

Indie rock act pulls off 'Distortion'

Stephen Merritt has never been one to rest on his laurels. The pop virtuoso has added numerous side projects to the already impressive discography of his main group, indie rock darlings The Magnetic Fields. The band's performance Sunday night at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium was enough to leave the heads of Merritt's fans spinning for its career-spanning set list.

The Magnetic Fields are still running strong on this year's "Distortion," an homage to the noisy pop of The Jesus and Mary Chain. They played Sunday in a recital format, featuring acoustic renderings of the songs from the distortion-drenched and aptly-titled album.

Tokyo-based guitarist Shugo Tokumaru opened with a set of Japanese psychedelic pop. Playing barefoot, Tokumaru's finger picking was lifted by a trio of multi-instrumentalists, playing everything from melodica to toy piano. The short set of hushed vocals and layered guitar had the feel of '60s road music, a Japanese-language take on Simon and Garfunkel with contemporary folk rock touches.

The Magnetic Fields took the stage with a song from another Merritt vehicle, The 6ths' "When I'm Out of Town," off their 1995 debut "Wasps' Nests." Merritt's untrained bass voice immediately filled the auditorium, with the moody break-up song setting the subject matter for the night.

Merritt's lyrics typically deal with lost love. The Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs" is a testament to his glum outlook on romance - 69 songs on the subject, released in 1999 as a three-disc set. The album tackles love from all possible narrators and genres, from the squishy synth-pop backbeat of "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" to the marching band snare of "Washington, D.C." Not a band to shy away from the concept album, the group followed up with another selection of bitter love songs, "I," on which all the songs began with that letter.

The show's first half toured through Merritt's catalogue, with songs from The Magnetic Fields' more recent albums and the two film soundtracks that the artist has recorded. Instead of his usual ukulele, Merritt played a bouzouki, the Greek string instrument, making for an awkward rendition of "This Little Ukulele." Manager and long-time bandmate Claudia Gonson played piano and balanced vocal duties with Shirley Simms. The acoustic instrumentation was rounded out with Sam Davol on cello and John Woo on guitar.

Since Merritt either struggled with his earplugs or covered his ear whenever the audience applauded - he suffers from an auditory condition that painfully amplifies sounds like clapping - Gonson was the night's liaison between the band and the audience. Between her geeky banter and her nasally rendition of "Take Ecstasy With Me," Gonson stole the show. During the spousal murder duet "Yeah, Oh Yeah," Gonson danced around the stage as Merritt sang his verses doing his best James Cagney impression.

Much to the audience's chagrin, the band didn't play "Washington, D.C.," their ballad rife with Washingtonian imagery. Gonson sang a verse during the encore, forgetting most of the words.

"If we knew we were coming to D.C., we would have brought the lyrics sheet," Merritt said.

You can reach this staff writer at thescene@theeagleonline.com.

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