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all photos: Brandon Hirsch

The Magnetic Fields’ Realism – a pristine record loosely organized under a banner of “folk” – was conceived as the stylistic foil to its reverb-drenched predecessor, 2008’s Distortion. As if to wink at two records’ inverse relationship, Stephin Merritt and company embarked on their Realism tour Thursday night where Distortion’s drew to a close, George Washington’s Lisner Auditorium.

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Fifteen months have passed between the two shows, and while little has changed in the band’s reserved, often demure performance, the band’s responsibilities have shifted slightly. Shirley Simms, who had previously been utilized solely as a vocalist, sat to far left of the bands semicircle, an autoharp in her lap. Claudia Gonson’s piano had been traded for a more modest Pianette keyboard.

John Woo’s guitar and Sam Davol’s cello remained unchanged, but they occasionally fell silent, as Merrit appeared comfortable to let his spare arrangements go unadorned. This restraint was echoed elsewhere: regardless of whether Merritt, Simms, or Gonson assumed vocal duties, their registers rarely pushed beyond a relaxed, conversational delivery.

The band also resisted indulging the audience with easy crowd pleasers. “California Girls” and “I Don’t Believe You”, Distortion’s and i’s closest approximations to hits for the NPR-allied crowd, were left alone. More tellingly, the band showed little interest in the old standards of its seminal work, 69 Love Songs.

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The Magnetic Fields’ complicated relationship with the three-disc opus was on display throughout the night. The album, over ten years after its release, remains both the focal point of fans’ obsession and the point of entry for newcomers, and as such, its popularity threatens to eclipse Merritt’s numerous preceding releases. To hear Gonson mockingly remind the audience that 69 Love Songs was not its first album, and, several times, introduce a song by emphasizing its creation prior to 1999, this popularity is not something that sits comfortably with the band. Prefacing one of the album’s songs, Gonson informed the audience it would not be “The Book of Love”, which she quipped had become a ubiquitous staple of hipster weddings.

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Merritt did not ignore the album completely – only 1994’s Holiday, sadly, suffered that fate – but with the exception of the rollicking “I’m Sorry I Love you” and the insistent “I Don’t Want to Get Over You”, the band focused on 69 Love Songs’ more understated entries: the devotional “Come Here Baby and Kiss Me Like You Mean It”, the melancholy “Acoustic Guitar”, and the, well, also melancholy “The One You Really Love”.

The set, a generous 28 songs, drew as equally from the depths of its back catalogue as from more recent releases. Merritt set the scattershot tone early, beginning the night gently strumming his bouzouki to the tune of “Lindy-Lou”, from the 6ths oft-ignored Hyacinths and Thistles. The band played as many songs from its 1991 debut, Distant Plastic Trees, as it did from i and Distortion combined.

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The show’s highlights came when the band revisited the trio of mid-90s albums that captured the band at the peak of its synth-pop powers: The Charm of the Highway Strip, Get Lost, and the 6ths Wasps’ Nest. Rescuing the set from a slow start, the ecstatic “You and Me and the Moon” – the closest the Merritt has come to a club anthem – quickly livened the pace, its cascading synths recreated as a chamber music by Davol’s cello. Merritt assumed vocals for the 6ths biting “Falling Out of Love with You”, ironically singing of drums and synthesizers, two discarded vestiges of the band’s live repertoire. In turn, Simms helmed Merritt’s “Fear of Trains”, rendering it simultaneously heart-aching and playful. Simms, as has been the case on recent Magnetic Fields releases, shone brightest of the vocalists.

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When the band turned its attention to Realism, songs were given the same delicate and understated treatment as on record. Realism is a slow-growing and often somber album; it’s virtue just as much in its gorgeous, crisp production as Merritt’s songs. Save its introduction of overlapping vocals, the record does not translate to a particularly compelling live listen, and, as a result, the songs dragged on occasion.

Realism’s release signals the end of the Magnetic Fields’ “no-synths trilogy,” and thus opens up possibilities for where Merritt will take the band’s sound, but it’s hard to imagine that, live, whatever he produces will be given anything more than the unassuming execution that has come to define the band.

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