- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

Like its namesake, Magnetic Fields is continually in flux. Songwriter-producer Stephin Merritt is the Fields, recruiting varying guest musicians for his albums on Chapel Hill's Merge Records. They perform tomorrow at the 9:30 Club, with Mr. Merritt on vocals, guitar and ukulele, Claudia Gonson on piano and vocals, Sam Davol on the cello and John Woo on guitar and banjo.

Mr. Merritt has other band projects such as the 6ths and Future Bible Heroes but still found time to record "69 Love Songs," which National Public Radio named the best rock album of 1999. He appeared on NPR's "Fresh Air" last year on Valentine's Day, of course.

"69 Love Songs" was intended as a live musical revue of 100 songs, but realizing its untenable length, Mr. Merritt scaled it back and turned it into a three-CD box set instead. He's still working on turning "69 Love Songs" into an off-Broadway show.

Songs like "Busby Berkeley Dreams" are essentially piano-bar performances, and the jaunty "Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" conjures an image of said guy in full top hat, tails and cane tapping about on stage. "Washington, D.C." takes its cues from the Herman's Hermits song "I'm Henry the VIII, I Am," and was inspired by a friend who had planned to move here.

Mr. Merritt isn't a storyteller but an ultraclever phraser. The touching "All My Little Words" (which owes its melody and mood to Abba's "Fernando") manages to couple "Not for all the tea in China/Not for all North Carolina" and describes a love interest who's "unboyfriendable." And the singsong rhymes on "Absolutely Cuckoo" will have you reaching for the repeat button once you stop laughing.

For Mr. Merritt the songs are autobiographical "in the sense that they reveal my taste in music." "69" covers almost every genre, including punk, hillbilly, disco, synth-pop and Irish ballad. Listening to all 69 songs in a row turns out to be much like love itself: hilarious, silly, depressing, cheesy, sometimes boring, but overall definitely worth the effort. Even the sad bits make you laugh out loud unexpectedly.

Why should people see the show? "Well, you don't need earplugs. You can bring your parents." But you won't be able to hit repeat if you miss a phrase.

• • •

Local hero Bill Kirchen parks his "Hot Rod Lincoln" at the Barns of Wolf Trap Saturday night, playing the same Telecaster guitar he did when he and Commander Cody drove "Lincoln" to the top 10 in 1972.

A local resident (and multiple Wammie winner) since 1986, Mr. Kirchen has toured and recorded with Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, but normally he and his band Too Much Fun (bassist Johnny Castle, drummer Jack O'Dell) are cranking the honky-tonk rockabilly at a dive near you. And "Hot Rod Lincoln" is always the highlight.

Live, the three-minute pop ditty becomes a stunning eight-minute opus, as Mr. Kirchen turns his guitar into taxi and diesel horns, and then pays tribute to about 40 different guitar players as they "pull over and let him by." They range from B.B. and Albert King, Link Wray and Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bo Diddley and Buck Owens, to Jimi Hendrix and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.

Mr. Kirchen's last album, "Raise A Ruckus," was recorded in Texas and bolstered by the Tejano stylings of accordion great Flaco Jimenez. He has an effective solo in "Girlfriend," a song co-written by and dedicated to Louise, Mr. Kirchen's "wife and Girlfriend with a capital G."

New Orleans funk comes through on "Fly On Your Jacket," one of several songs in which Mr. Kirchen plays the fool in love. "Man in the Bottom of a Well" is introspective country-blues about looking at "my reflection and the soul I've got to sell."

The chugging title track reflects the common Kirchen theme of living your one life to the fullest but not living it too fast. "Could have been bigger than Mick and Keith/But they read the job description and didn't need the grief.

Mr. Kirchen knows his calling is to "Raise up a ruckus, throw open the door/There's people out there that've never seen us before."

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