The Magnetic Fields
Fri Nov 12, Moore Theatre, 8 pm, $24 adv./$26 DOS.

In discussing Stephin Merritt, critics often call the New York songwriter the Cole Porter of his generation; a cheap way of saying Merritt is prolific, adept at customizing any stripe of pop music, and balances wit with vulnerability in his lyrics.

Why not anoint him the Carol Channing of his generation? Like the Hello, Dolly! vet, Merritt has won recognition for other projects--the electro-pop Future Bible Heroes, the dour Gothic Archies, and the all-star karaoke of the 6ths--but is best known for a single role: leader of the Magnetic Fields.

Luckily, Merritt displays greater range than Channing. The Fields' most recent album, i (on Nonesuch), includes forays into operetta, caustic jangle-pop, and wee-small-hours balladry. The disc also finds Merritt still testing his own limits, even after 1999's ambitious triple-CD 69 Love Songs.

First, all the instruments on i were played by hand, no synthesizers. "We had just done the Future Bible Heroes' Eternal Youth, and I wanted to swing in the other direction," says Merritt. His morose baritone voice also sounds lighter. "I was trying for a more 'pop' vocal sound, and my natural range is not remotely pop."

But Merritt doesn't plan to sing in those keys live ("I don't really want to wind up yelping in C sharp"), nor will the band recreate the album's arrangements, opting instead for intimate ones inspired by Merritt's recent theater scores. Whether he elects to further enhance the night by getting Dolly-ed up in a blond wig remains to be seen.

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