The Magnetic Fields at Harris Theater / by Doyle Armbrust

Only in L.A. would you find a gaggle of coke-hoovering coeds unaware that they are being exclusively targeted from the stage with the lyric “I hate California girls.” The Magnetic Fields’ singer-pianist Claudia Gonson relished sharing this tour tale with Chicago audiences in March of 2008, following the release of their full-length Distortion.

At the heart of any Magnetic Fields record is mercurial songwriter Stephin Merritt’s sometimes lovelorn, often sardonic poetry, and while the writing on the band’s latest, Realism, reaffirms the 44-year-old as a wickedly talented wordsmith, the overt disgust of songs like “California Girls” has been substituted with understatement and innuendo. “The Dolls’ Tea Party” is this album’s parallel to “California Girls,” but here the sad absurdity of children mirroring parental vacuousness (“At the dolls, we’re all in our glittering best / There will be a test on who’s best and worst dressed”) replaces the comic animosity of the anti-90210 anthem (“I’ll stand behind their backs / With my brand new battle ax”).

Merritt’s lyrics are not the only understated element on his baby’s ninth LP, as the band tries on a folk aesthetic, a deliberate contrast to Distortion’s Jesus and Mary Chain–like buzzy blowout. Autoharp, dulcimer, sitar, tuba, violin and toy piano are added to the expected instrumentation of Sam Davol’s cello, John Woo’s guitar, Gonson’s piano and Merritt’s ukulele, conspiring in a thinned-out texture that leaves the album’s lyrics bleak and unavoidable.

The perfect and traditional venue for the now L.A.-based group (so it can’t be all bad there), the cozy Old Town School of Folk Music, has been upgraded to the classy and classical-minded 1,500-seat Harris Theater. First-timers would do well to keep mobile phones silent and refrain from shrieking out requests at the notoriously cantankerous Merritt…unless they care to find themselves targeted on album ten.

- Doyle Armbrust

published in Time Out Chicago on March 3rd, 2010