Brighton Dome, Thurs 7th + Fri 8th Sept
Stephen Merritt (aka the Magnetic Fields) is another classic example of someone I’ve always intended to check out, only for them to finally show up in Brighton. Though this isn’t starting in the shallow end. The latest release, ’50 Song Memoir’, is an account of his life to date, delivered at a rate of one song per year. And he takes the bold decision to play the five-disc affair in it’s entirety, split over two nights.
He tells us from the start “autobiography need not be the same thing as truth,” and concludes in a closing song he’s probably remembered it all wrong anyway. And that kind of subjectivity holds sway. Despite numbers being pinned to years, there’s very little pastiching the music of past eras. And when such a thing is done, it’s because such a sound crossed his idiosyncratic path. So, for example, the song about his first band is self-parodically lo-fi simply because that’s how he remembers them. (He plays the same guitar he used for their sessions. Or at least that’s what he remembers.)
In fact, it’s perhaps the first of the four parts which works the best, focusing tightly on his cloistered childhood world. Childhood is always going to lend itself to an idiosyncratic perspective on things, and this is abetted by an eventful upbringing courtesy of a dotty hippy mother. (Including being taken to a Jefferson Airplane concert at five. I got Warwick castle.) One song’s called ’I Think I’ll Make Another World’, a childhood impulse I remember all too well, another starts with the line “My Mother found herself another jerk.”
All of which is emphasised by childhood bedroom built around him on stage, which stays up for the duration. A neat idea with the unfortunate side-effect of blocking out most of the other musicians. (Though the motivation might have been part practical, for Merritt’s hearing has become sensitive.)
This does mean proceedings dip a little as he ups and leaves home. Perhaps subject matter steers closer to standard song fare. But the main obstacle for me was the degree to which New Wave synth-pop intrudes. Which Merritt was much taken with back in the day. While I, despite being much the same age, decidedly wasn’t. (I saw those silly hairstyles and plastic beats on ’Top of the Pops’ and quickly concluded I preferred the old Romantics.)
It should be said this was more to do with genre than quality, so may have been a problem just for me. For a fifty-song album run right through, there’s precious little filler – exquisite melodies replacing one another as if on a conveyor belt. Overall, the music’s baroque chamber pop built around his even baritone voice. There’s a spaciousness to it, quite unlike the tightness of a rock band. And while there’s a signature sound most numbers managed to find their own identity. Musicians swapped instruments quite bewilderingly, quite often mid-song. Instruments sometimes so unusual they were pretty bewildering in and of themselves.
Despite all this chronologising (if there’s such a word), there’s something time-defiant about Merritt’s music. Synth pop aside, it’s a world in which everything in rock music since Elvis just happened in some other room. The matching of urbane lyrics to hummable tunes seems to stem more from the days of Cole Porter. The Dome theatre’s… uh… theatre-like-ness makes for a fitting venue for proceedings, but the ideal one would probably be some old-style Music Hall. (He flashes an image of such a place, from small-town California, up on the screen before one of the songs.)
The anti-spontaneity of the set is underlined if not made a point of principle, with Merritt’s twixt-song talk as polished and prepared as his vocals. Even the interval is precisely delineated, determined to last for precisely seventeen minutes. While the almost remorselessly pointed lyrics are frequently laugh-out-loud funny. (That staple rock theme of surfing is treated with “Boring people go surfing/ In those horrible shorts/ What’s the purpose of surfing?/ I believe there is none.”)
Rock music relies upon songwriting but tends to disguise it, the better to evoke spontaneity. And so songwriting becomes like seams on clothing, a necessity best worn concealed on the inside. Which can make it appealing to hear someone parading the musical equivalent of a fine-cut suit.
Leaving me disregarding one of my own prime pieces of advice – beware projects. In fact Merritt seems to do his thing best when writing to order, even when it’s a matter of him giving orders to himself – a one-man Tin Pan Alley. He’s the guy who wrote the self-describing ’69 Love Songs’ and ’i’, fourteen songs starting with that letter, helpfully arranged in alphabetical order. In fact the rock auteur in poised expectation of genius striking, that’s the sort of thing he’d probably dash off another pithy put-down over.
And that “other jerk” his Mother found? “He clearly hated Neu! and Can.” A line not just delivered as a sure-fire sign of jerkdom, but as he sang it Merritt crossed himself in memory of recently departed Holger Czukay. The gesture of an anti-jerk, if ever there was.
A song about the family cat, from Edinburgh...
Royal Festival Hall, London, Sat 9th Sept
Lubomyr Melnyk is Ukriainian pianist performing as part of the tenth anniversary of Erased Tapes. (A label of which I know almost nothing, save the CDs they cheerily handed to us punters.) He’s often associated with Minimalism, and true enough he does eschew dynamics for the mesmeric force of repeating patterns.
Though to me his music doesn’t have the pulsing quality of Minimalism, and while it’s effect on the listener might have some of it’s serenity it’s more at turns reflective and rhapsodic. His own prefered term is continuous music, having written a treatise under that title which I can’t claim to have read. It would be impossible to hear his music as a series of individual notes, with it’s loops and cascades, and so much sustain it becomes slightly hard to figure when he’s finished playing.
I tend to think of it more as a latter-day form of Romanticism. Where real-world analogues at Minimalism only really work at the extremes of scale, Melnyk’s sound does seem more attuned to water flowing or trees rustling. Though I’m not sure whether he’d appreciate the analogy, as between pieces he was keen to stress the metaphysical nature of music. (However much I liked the muisc, I did find his twixt-song talk rambling and somewhat hippy-dippy. Would that he had Stephen Merritt’s concision!)
The gig started at the somewhat unusual time of half five, which actually proved to be ideal – with the sun just starting to go down, after the bustle of the day was done. It reminded me of the way Indian ragas are written for specific times of day.
From the Lattitude festival…
MARTIN + ELIZA CARTHY
The Ropetackle Centre, Shoreham, Fri 15th Sept
Having not only seen Martin and Eliza Carthy separately before, but even at this very venue, I can confirm that the father and daughter combo is the dream ticket.
There are those who think old folk songs need to be spruced up for modern ears. Whereas, rather than ribbons and bows, Martin Carthy wraps his songs up in brown paper and string. By the opening number, he was already singing about only having bread and water to eat, and only a chair as furniture.
It works because of his idiosyncrasies, which not only take time to work on you but could possibly pass you by were you not in the right mood. He’s like a radio station where not only is the signal faint, but the static is part of the process. A family accompaniment amplifies the signal, draws something out, while not losing any of the idiosyncrasies. The points where they sang together sounded extra special, the differences in their voices just accentuating the combination.
Eliza sounded mildly exultant in explaining that one number was a not a genuine folk traditional but a broadside ballad – an early version of Tin Pan Alley, where rush-written songs printed on cheap paper were sold in the street. Chasing the song rather than some chimerical notion of authenticity clearly appealed to her, as well it should.
Songs almost entirely came from the new album ’The Moral of the Elephant’. And if I didn’t like every number equally, they managed to work musical variety into what was a maximum of two voices and two instruments. My favourite moment was the segue between ’Grand Conversation on Napoleon’ and ’Moral of the Elephant’, which closed the first half.
’Queen Caraboo’, not from the Ropetackle…