The Magnetic Fields, Lyric, Hammersmith

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The Independent Culture

It was a stark, and somewhat alarming warning: "Stephen has an ear infection, so we're going to play extra quiet tonight." Not that The Magnetic Fields, led by Stephin Merritt, are especially loud anyway, more chamber quartet than bog-standard indie group. Merritt and his three companions had returned for three dates to the Lyric Hammersmith, an intimate, all-seated theatre, and the scene of their last London triumph.

It was a stark, and somewhat alarming warning: "Stephen has an ear infection, so we're going to play extra quiet tonight." Not that The Magnetic Fields, led by Stephin Merritt, are especially loud anyway, more chamber quartet than bog-standard indie group. Merritt and his three companions had returned for three dates to the Lyric Hammersmith, an intimate, all-seated theatre, and the scene of their last London triumph.

That was when they emerged from cult support with 2000's self-explanatory 69 Love Songs, an astonishing feat given most of its tracks were carried by Merritt's sharp wit and often showed a bright lyrical clarity. In recent years he has continued the theme of profundity by devoting himself to two side projects, The 6ths and Future Bible Heroes, before returning to his main job. Though to rein in Merritt's genius, the Fields' latest album, i, only contains songs that begin with that letter.

The opening night started off inauspiciously, with the pianist and co-vocalist Claudia Gonson running off to get her notes. She left the guitarist James Woo, Sam Davol on cello and Merritt to fill in. The scene demonstrated their novice attitude to stagecraft, mainly because Merritt is uncomfortable on stage. A hand rose to protect his ear when applause was too boisterous, though he sulked throughout much of the set. Meanwhile, an ill-at-ease Jenny exchanged banter with the audience.

Yet despite his problems, Merritt transfixed them. His gravelly vocals brought to mind Scott Walker or a young Johnny Cash, while his tremulous vulnerability was devastating when paired with such tender lines as "In your hands, I will be free". His band made a virtue of the limitations caused by Merritt's affliction.

Having jettisoned even the lightest percussion, the four-piece concentrated on devising exquisite arrangements that weaved baroque patterns from stark foundations. Merritt played his ukulele as expressively as a Spanish guitarist, while Davol conjured delicate arpeggios and soaring strokes. Either Gonson or Woo kept rhythm economically.

It helped that the audience treated every song with hushed reverence. Recent numbers were greeted warmly, both from i and last year's soundtrack to US indie film Pieces Of April.

While in the past the Fields have been a studio band, cleverly using recording tricks to expand their sound, on i they have stuck to a live feel. So its tracks translated well to the stage, though it was a shame his acoustic/electro pop hybrid "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" received the same stately handling as the rest. That left Merritt's words to provide diversity, not a problem when you have the sauciness of "Papa Was A Rodeo" and the bitter "As You Turn To Go". With the aching "I Looked All Over Town" a match for them, it will take more than ear ache to stop Stephen Merritt.

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