Since moving from Massachusetts to Hudson, Club Helsinki has jolted the Hudson Valley music scene with an infusion of national club-circuit acts and plenty of local love as well. It’s a beautiful listening room, built for sound from the ground up and every bit the equal of Joe’s Pub and Manhattan’s other small boutique clubs. Stylistically, Helsinki’s sweet spot is wide, but the majority of what plays here might be called organic, rooted with greater or lesser degrees of puritanical zeal in the staple American styles of blues, jazz, funk, confessional folk, literate country and roots rock. It is music with an emphasis on human feel and honest, emotive intent: soul, in its many colors and facets. The old Club Helsinki was even more a bastion of Americana.
So I was mildly surprised to learn that Magnetic Fields – one of the least organic, least honest and most important underground pop groups of the last two decades – is playing at Club Helsinki on Tuesday, March 6. The recent Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) solo show might have tipped me off that Helsinki’s roster is starting to reflect 360 degrees of Hudson’s urban refugee tastes. If there are two things that New York City has always loved in its rock, they are noise (Moore) and wicked smarts (Magnetic Fields). And now we can have these up river, too. The Feelies are here on April 28, if you needed more proof.
From the Velvet Underground on, it has been incumbent upon smartypants New York groups to purge rock – especially the rock vocal – of its habitual expressive excess. New York reformers eschew true-believer rock gesture in favor of a kind of dispassionate, drug-leveled plainsong. The Velvet Underground, underneath the monochromatic primitivism, was a pretty damn savvy pop group – even Tin Pan Alleyish at times – but you would never know it by the way they sang. (Alas, the majority of their many followers got only the monochromatic primitivism part and not the sublimated pop. Shame, that.)
Magnetic Fields songwriter Stephin Merritt has unemployed numerous surrogate lead singers throughout his career. From the sweet-voiced Susan Anway on, vocalists of variable competence (including the basso profundo Merritt himself) deliver his biting, winking and often beautiful love songs with a conspicuous absence of personality, playing the words on the melody the way a child learning a horn might, with little regard for emotion or even for what is being said. It is like being absentmindedly read to. Underneath, Merritt’s elegant, noisy synth/pop orchestrations blip and bleep along, evoking ABBA, a punk-ethos Brian Wilson, a bedroom Phil Spector and whatever other white-as-snow pop classicists you care to mention.
Magnetic Fields pretend to stylistic diversity, but the conceit is pretty thin. On 2008’s Distortion, a layer of continuous, musically unengaged distortion rides underneath what is otherwise a fairly typical collection of lovely Magnetic Fields pop songs. On 2010’s Realism, mandolins and an undifferentiated army of acoustic strum propel what is otherwise a fairly typical collection of lovely Magnetic Fields pop songs. You might think that Merritt’s acoustic album represents a move from the synthetic toward the organic, but you’d be wrong. If anything, Realism is a comment on how organic authenticity is, as much as any other style, an affectation. Consider the album’s comic highlight: the New Christy Minstrels send-up “We Are Having a Hootenanny,” in which a square-as-can-be, high-gloss folk-revival chorus invites you to “Come and take our personality quiz.” Magnetic Fields has always been more about the ism than the real.
Merritt, however, is seldom in it just for such postmodern yuks. His career is an intensive, prolific, PhD-level interrogation of the paradoxes of love and – more to the point – of the love song. If that sounds too academic for your heart, better get used to the fact that this cat has a better way with the words of love than just about anyone ever. He is as quotable as Oscar Wilde. The only other current band that I can think of that mines some of the same terrain is Belle & Sebastian, in terms of lit-wit, melodic bounty and an utter lack of earth and grit in the arrangements and performances. And when Stuart Murdoch titled the most recent Belle & Sebastian release Write about Love, he might as well have been delivering a time-travel directive to the young Stephin Merritt in the early 1990s.
His craft is so clean, his forms so tidy, his melodies so frequently pretty, his verbal wit so economic and metrically precise and his focus so exclusively on love that you’d think that Stephin Merritt would be a song-interpreter’s dream. I defy you to listen to “The Book of Love,” one of his most beloved songs, and not immediately want to cover it yourself, to sing it to someone really special who may have hurt you.
Be careful there: I have heard two Magnetic Fields covers recently. One is Peter Gabriel’s take on “The Book of Love,” a major-label release that has gotten a lot of radio play. The other is an online video of Death Cab for Cutie main man Ben Gibbard singing “I Don’t Want to Get over You” at a party.
Now, I value both Gabriel and Gibbard. PG, on his own turf, has done some things that are downright important. As for Gibbard, Plans is a truly beautiful album. As songwriters, Gabriel and Gibbard both lean heavily on dramatic monologue, using the first person to inhabit and explore characters who are clearly not the singer himself. And both desperately want to get inside the elusive soul of this New York romantic savant. Gabriel wants to know what’s in his Is. Gibbard wants to possess his heart.
But these love songs, irresistible as they are, are spiked with irony and self-subversion, and they prove inhospitable to their earnest guests. Both performers come off as grave, ponderous and worse: caught red-handed in a stance, an impersonation of honesty and depth. Not only do the singers fail to expose the soul of the songs; the songs also expose the artifice and insincerity of the singers. Whoa: the power of Stephin Merritt.
The great music critic Robert Christgau wrote of Magnetic Fields’ three-CD epic 69 Love Songs, “Accusing Stephin Merritt of insincerity would be like accusing Cecil Taylor of playing too many notes – not only does it go without saying, it’s what he’s selling.” It is so, but, like Gabriel and Gibbard, I can’t resist giving myself to it, unironically, wholeheartedly. He’s just too good.
To know exactly what it is he’s selling, grab a random handful of titles: “I Don’t Want to Get over You,” “The Trouble I’ve Been Looking For,” “All You Ever Do Is Walk Away.” No one has ever offered so compelling a vision of love as elective suffering. But it hurts that he doesn’t mean it.
Bad news, folks: The March 6 Magnetic Fields show at Club Helsinki is well past sold out. But Club Helsinki is doing wonders for our music scene and needs our support to make it stick. So check its schedule and get up there soon. Club Helsinki is located at 5 Columbia Street in Hudson. For more information call (518) 828-4800 or visit www.helsinkihudson.com.