Saturday 3 September 2022


Komedia, Brighton, Tues 23rd Aug

Emma Ruth Rundle is an American singer/songwriter, sometimes described as Gothic Folk, who’s previously worked with Chelsea Wolfe. She’s made more than six albums, but somehow slowcoach here only found about her during lockdown.

Every YouTube clip I’ve seen of hers had been not just with a band, but packed a full-on sound. Whereas it became clear from the stage set-up this was to be a solo gig. (Well, with one song where the support act, Jo Quail, joined in on electric cello.) She swapped between guitar and piano throughout.

The melodic lines were strong but her playing sparse, fingers held over one narrow section of the keyboard, a capo habitually fixed to her guitar. The music often felt less like ornamentation than augmentation; underlining, italicising and emboldening the lyrics.

There’s little doubting the power of these songs. But there’s that adage about too much of a good thing. It ends up as a whole lot of music in the key of black, with lyrics like “there’s no need to check the weather, as my winter’s never over.” Ironically, I’d imagine that had she played with a band but dropped down to solo for a couple of numbers, they’d have come across as highlights. As it is, the combination of unrelentingly bleak content and restricted form became a bit too much, like taking your potion in concentrate. (And I grew up during Post-Punk, I’ve a fairly strong tolerance for unrelenting bleakness!)

The main set’s all from the recent album, ’Engine Of Hell'. (Which, from some on-stage comments, she sees as a kind of song cycle.) Which, unbeknown to me at the time, was a much more stripped-back affair than anything done before, if not quite to the extent of this gig. The constraints of lockdown on recording may well have been a factor here. Ironically, she was quite possibly recording it precisely when I was catching up with her earlier band-based releases.

Whether this was a one-off experiment or a whole new direction remains to be seen. (There’s been one album since, but that takes a dark ambient path.) But I kind of wish my first Emma Ruth Rundle gig had been nearer the shallow end, with the rubber ring of a band attached.

Not from Brighton…


Hammersmith Apollo (for some reason now called the Eventim Apollo), London
Wed 31st Aug

The last time I saw New York singer-songwriter Stephen Merritt (aka the Magnetic Fields), conditions could scarcely have been more different. Then he was presenting his latest release, the self-described ’50 Song Memoir’, in strict track order split over two nights. And a double dose of all-new songs seemed to daunt the ticket buying public, judging by their non-presence. (Me, I took to it. But no-one listens to me.)

This time… well there’s frequent numbers from the most recent album ’Quickies’. (So called because every track comes in under the three minute mark.) But they also dip heavily into the equally self-described ’69 Love Songs’, which probably counts as Merritt’s magnum opus. So a larger venue fairly brims with folk, who mostly recognise each new number a few bars in.

With track titles such as ’Kraftwerk in a Blackout’ and ’The Flowers She Sent And The Flowers She Said She Sent’, humour plays no small part in Merritt’s writing. And, while perhaps I was exposed to too much Barron Knights at an early age, humorous songs are often signified by a rough-edged sound, like telling gag cartoons from illustrations. But with Merritt both songs and gags are quite exquisitely crafted, with his baritone voice the ultimate in deadpan. Captivating melodies carry barked and pithy words, again, again and again.

Though crafted here definitely doesn’t mean adorned. The five Fields on stage play quite minimally, with one or more dropping out when not required. The great English folk singer Chris Wood once wisely said “a song is great not when you can't add anything to it, but when you can take nothing away.” And many songs here fit that definition.

Back in the day, it was often commented that British sitcoms would mix up their humorous and poignant moments, much in the manner of real life, while in America the two had to be clearly delineated. At which point I’d often add that British music did much the same thing, then go on about the Smiths.

Yet Magnetic Fields, formed back in 1991, would seem to scupper that theory. Merritt seems to exult in the combination, or sometimes the juxtaposition. No less than Peter Gabriel once sang ’The Book of Love’ on stage with them, before recording his own version and spawning a series of covers. (Though I confess to preferring the original.) Which effectively made it Merrit’s signature tune. He sings it here accompanied only by the barest plucks of ukulele, during which I doubt anyone dared breathe. Then mischievously followed it with a rousing version of ’The Biggest Tits In History’. (“She majored in biology/ She knows whereof she speaks.”)

And he takes a similarly gleeful mix-it-up approach to gender identity, as in ’Andrew In Drag’. (“A pity she does not exist/ A shame he’s not a fag/ The only girl I ever loved/ Was Andrew in drag.”) He also hands songs over to co-vocalist Sylvia Sims, blurring whether the perspective sung from is his or hers.

Merritt once wrote a song called 'Think I’ll Make Another World’ and often seems to have come from some parallel reality where Elvis never went on Ed Sullivan, rock ’n’ roll never became the monoculture and the spirit of great songwriters like Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim still blooms. And it’s a parallel reality we can step into…

If this was a proper review, I’d be telling me how the Magnetic Fields continue to tour the UK and Ireland. ’The Book Of Love’, from San Francisco. We didn’t get the variant opening…

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