I laugh at people who say there is no good music to listen to these days. Here I go: HA! And again: HA! I laugh because it’s so ridiculously untrue. All you have to do is take the time to find it, which I know is easier said than done, but then again you should be really motivated to de-crap your ears from the misery of the commercial bilge that people who DO NOT LIKE MUSIC force upon you, or things that you’ve heard 8 billion times already from your archives. HA! HA! Do it! There are wonderful new songs floating all around you RIGHT NOW…you just have to reach up every so often and grab one or two.

Last night I went to see The Magnetic Fields in concert at Seattle’s Town Hall. Until a couple of years ago, I had never heard of them until I heard this mostly-instrumental song, “Three-Way,” from their 2008 Distortion album.

Totally my thing, right? Noisy, retro, garage-gaze rock, simple and smirky. Imagine my surprise when I saw this video of their live performance of the song.

HA! Well, I was pretty happy about that…surprise me with an acoustic version with a cello and you’ve got a new fan. Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields have been putting out music for almost 20 years, as it turns out, known for Merritt’s intelligent brooding-yet-humorous lyrics and very diverse range of musical styles, broadly covered by the “indie” label. Dig further down and you find out Mr. Merritt is quite an interesting and complex fellow. From his Wiki page:

“Merritt was raised Buddhist by his counter-culture mother, though he is now an atheist. He has never met his father, folk singer Scott Fagan. He has worked as an editor for Spin Magazine and Time Out New York.

Merritt is known for having a dry personality, embracing a persona and life that is very different from the traditional rock star image. In a September 2005 interview conducted by The Onion's AV Club, alternative rock musician Bob Mould was reminded of an interviewer who once referred to Mould as "the most depressed man in rock." Mould's response was, "He's never met Stephin Merritt, obviously."

Merritt suffers from a hearing condition known as hyperacusis; any sound heard louder than normal begins to "feedback" in his left ear at increasingly louder volumes. This has largely influenced the reserved live setup of The Magnetic Fields, which usually consists of acoustic instruments and little to no percussion. Merritt also wears earplugs during performances, and typically covers his left ear if the audience applauds.

He briefly used the name The Baudelaire Memorial Orchestra as an attribution for a song written for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, entitled "Scream and Run Away." Further music was recorded for the audiobook versions of the series and is attributed to The Gothic Archies. The Tragic Treasury was released by Nonesuch Records in October 2006 along with the 13th and final book of the series.

Under his own name, he recorded and released the soundtracks to the films Eban and Charley and Pieces of April. The soundtrack to the Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete & Pete featured many of his songs.

He and director Chen Shi-zheng have collaborated on three pieces of musical theatre; Orphan of Zhao (2003), Peach Blossom Fan (2004), and My Life as a Fairy Tale (2005). Select tracks from these works have been released on Nonesuch Records under the title Showtunes.

Additionally, he is one-third of the infrequent, live-only musical extravaganza the Three Terrors ensemble, whose other principal members include 69 Love Songs album's Dudley Klute and LD Beghtol; past themes of these performances have included: French pop, movie themes (including the title song from Deep Throat), intoxication, and New York. Kenny Mellman (of Kiki & Herb), James Jacobs, Daniel Handler, Jon DeRosa and others have performed with T3T at these sporadic gala events. Merritt was referenced in the Beulah song "Popular Mechanics for Lovers."

Merritt wrote and sang "I'm In a Lonely Way" in a television commercial for Volvo that aired in the Summer and Fall of 2007. He also performed "The Wheels on the Car."

Merritt penned the music and lyrics for a 2009 off-Broadway stage musical of "Coraline," based on the novel by Neil Gaiman. In the MCC Theater production, his music will be performed by a piano “orchestra” – complete with a traditional piano, a toy piano, and a prepared piano (a piano that has had its sound altered by attaching objects – such as tin foil, rubber bands and playing cards – to the strings).

He is currently working on a score for the silent film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to be performed at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco on May 4th, 2010.”

Ah, well, all that explains the acoustic live set-up, and probably why the Town Hall was sold out last night, and sold out for their second show there this evening. Guy is a musician, has a serious hearing issue, is too smart for his own good, and found fans via many different avenues, and is rawthah talented. Merritt is clearly someone who must write music, and is compelled to look for real challenges in his work. Thumbs up, sir.

The crowd last night was distinctly vision-challenged as noted by the 70% like me wearing dark plastic glasses, as well as mainly 40+ in age with a decent showing of 20-something indiekids thrown in for good measure. Very unlike any of the shows I attend, there were also quite a few couples in attendance who looked more like art gallery/symphony people with disposable incomes. A woman in front of me who looked like she would be offering a poisoned apple to children from a hole in a twisted old tree creepily massaged the shoulders of her paramour, and I imagine the rest of the crowd discussed French literature, in French, and wondered why that one woman in the glasses was staring at them all and taking pictures. The Town Hall was certainly a lovely venue to welcome us all with its vintage charm and long dark curving wooden pews.

Best known from San Francisco’s American Music Club, Mark Eitzel (and accompanist friend) opened the show with a short set. Eitzels’ grim gritty city kitty lyrics combined with nice range-y melodies were interesting – it made me think of Morrissey if Morrissey were a better singer, and Elvis Costello in his churlish furious note-scribbling holding-very-long-notes period. Eitzel was either very nervous or just very hyper onstage – you could see it was impossible for him to not be moving at all times, even when not singing, which was a bit distracting. He seemed to be aware of this and had a good sense of humor about it. He also looked like most of the audience members.

After Eitzel flew offstage after his last sung note (like, really, just sang, waved and GONE, leaving the other guy to finish up alone), there was a short break and then the Magnetic Fields appeared. The second song up of the night was this, “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind,” one of my favorites from the band’s newly-released Realism album.

Merritt’s unmistakable deep voice has the low, long resonance of a big bowed bass. It plays well off of the high curbed flat sustain of the traditional female folk vocals of Merritt’s high school pal and longtime musical collaborator Claudia Gonson and vocalist/autoharpy (heh, sorry) Shirley Simms. Merritt’s ukelele (I swear, the hottest instrument going), Sam Davol’s cello, and John Woo’s guitar blended together seamlessly to create a modern pop-folk sound, pleasant but not dull, pretty without being cloying. Davol seemed to have just rolled out of bed, shaking his head several times, running a hand through his hair, and Woo seemed to have been plucked from Microsoft for the day. Wry n’ dry banter between Merritt and Gonson got plenty of laughs from the audience, as did a rogue spider hanging down from the main lighting rig. No one was injured.

Merritt’s unfortunately-timed headcold required a few Kleenex blows, but he held his vocals together, his illness really only apparent when he went to the higher reaches of his range and I heard some thinness and cracking, but nothing major. One had the feeling that Merritt just doesn’t tolerate anything less than best effort, from himself or anyone. His smart lyrics kept me thinking and smiling, and the music was deftly-performed and charming – definitely inspirational. Here's "I'm Sorry I Love You."

So HA! I encourage you to explore the back catalog of Mr. Merritt and the Magnetic Fields – see what you might grab out of the air.