The Magnetic Fields (named after the André Breton novel, Les Champs Magnétiques) is the principal creative outlet of singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt. While the particular musical style of the band is usually as malleable as Merritt's songwriting, they are commonly attributed to pop genres and subgenres: synthpop, indie pop, noise pop, and, most recently, folk-pop.
Earlier in the band's career, The Magnetic Fields were characterized by synthesized instrumentation by Merritt with lead vocals provided by Susan Anway (and then by Stephin Merrit himself). A more traditional band later materialized, currently composed of Merritt, Claudia Gonson, Sam Davol, and John Woo, with occasional guest vocals by Shirley Simms. The band is recognizable for Merrit's lyrics, often about love, that are by turns ironic, bitter, and humorous. Their best known work is the 1999 three-volume concept album 69 Love Songs. It was followed in the succeeding years by a "no-synth" trilogy: i (2004), Distortion (2008), and Realism (2010).
The band began as Merritt's studio project, under the name Buffalo Rome, with him playing all instruments. With the help of friend Claudia Gonson, who had played in Merritt's band The Zinnias during high school, a live band was assembled in Boston, where Merritt and Gonson lived, to play Merritt's compositions. The band's first live performance was at T.T. the Bear's Place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1991 where they played to a sparse audience that was expecting to see Galaxie 500 spin-off Magnetophone.
The 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs showcased Merritt's songwriting abilities and the group's musicianship, demonstrated by the use of such varied instruments as ukulele, banjo, accordion, cello, mandolin, flute, xylophone, and Marxophone, in addition to their usual setting of synthesizers, guitars, and effects. The album features vocalists Shirley Simms, Dudley Klute, L.D. Beghtol, and Gonson, each of whom sings lead on six songs as well as various backing vocals, plus Daniel Handler (who has written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) on accordion, and longtime collaborator Christopher Ewen (of Future Bible Heroes) as guest arranger/synthesist. Violinist Ida Pearle makes a brief cameo on "Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side."
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