I don't think Stephin Merritt can write a bad song.

Some certainly fall flat on record, but the songwriting itself is not at fault - which is why pretty much every song was a keeper at the Magnetic Fields' show at Zankel Hall last night. It was my first visit to Zankel, which is an intimate space with great sound (naturally) and sightlines - a perfect match for the band. (The front row seats also didn't hurt - we were literally 4 feet from the stage, close enough to read the writing on the instruments.)

Merritt was on ukelele all night, with Claudia Gonson across the stage on piano and John Woo on guitar/banjo and Sam Davol on cello in between. The Magnetic Fields don't play very often, which I think is a good thing. Not only is each show a treat (unlike, say, an Interpol gig) but they also really enjoy performing, joking around with each other and the crowd between and even during songs. They clearly are not a band worn down by weeks on the road. I first saw them in May at the Town Hall, where the interaction between Merritt and Gonson and the quality of his lyrics stood out most. What jumped out at me last night - perhaps because of the smaller space - was the interplay between Woo and Davol. I found myself focusing on them most of the night. They're not flashy but they're damn good, navigating through each song's twists and turns with a subtle flair.

With four performers, five instruments, and no overdubs on stage, the Magnetic Fields end up rearranging many of their songs live - it's almost a must given the thick liner notes of 69 Love Songs. But that's what makes it so impressive - the songwriting is simply stellar and the songs do more than just survive the changes. Different melodies stand out, new harmonies emerge, and the songs take on new life, managing to be simple and complex at the same time. If you know the originals (as the crowd did), the translation is just awesome.

They opened up with i's "I Was Born" and then moved onto "I Don't Believe In The Sun" and "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off" from 69 Love Songs. The latter was a highlight for me - great slide guitar work from Woo on one of my favorite songs. Though they played a good amount of older stuff during the 2 hour set, the focus was on their last two albums. All but 3 of i's songs were played, "I Don't Believe You", "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin" (which works way better live IMO), and "I'm Tongue-Tied" being my favorites. They also played a ton of 69 Love Songs, highlights including "Reno Dakota" (actually a real person, who was in the crowd last night), "Papa Was A Rodeo", "Come Back From San Francisco" (with an extended solo bridge), and "A Pretty Girl Is Like..." (a crowd fave). "Yeah! Oh Yeah!" came out during the encore, when Stephin and Claudia both tried to be taller than the other on stage, ending with Stephin standing on his stool and Claudia threatening to stand on the piano. It was like that the whole night - lots of laughing to go with the music. The night ended with "I Die" - rather appropriate since "I Was Born" started, as Peephole pointed out.

As you can probably tell, I think the Magnetic Fields are a *great* live band. The setlist was surprisingly similar to the Town Hall show, but their performances are uncommon enough that I didn't really mind. I'm just looking forward to their next show, whenever it may be.

I am psyched

JD Twitch and JG Wilkes of Optimo will be at the Tribeca Grand this Saturday and the Llano Estacado on Monday. It's their first visit to NYC in over a year. I am psyched. You should be too. I've never read a bad review of their eclectic, wide-ranging sets, so all signs point to this visit being a real treat. The Tribeca Grand party is free, but RSVP's are a must - send your name to weare138nyc@yahoo.com to get on the list. I'd also recommend getting there early, as they're expecting it to be packed. Tickets are $5 for Monday and only available at the door.

As for what to expect, here's what they played during their Breezeblock set a few weeks ago:

TV On The Radio - Staring At The Sun / I Wolf - Fallin (Lo Soul Mix) / Mu - Paris Hilton / Code 6 - C.O.D.E.S. / Midnight Mike - Hot In The Kitchen / No Smoke - Koro Koro / Delta 5 - Mind Your Own Business / Gang Of Four - At Home He's A Tourist / The Sonics - Have Love Will Travel / Simple Minds - Theme For Great Cities / Acid Test - Acid Test 1 / The Step - Yeah You / M83 - Don't Save Us From The Flames (Superpitcher Mix) / Mount Florida - Dingered / Creedence Clearwater Revival - I Heard It Through The Grapevine / Misc - Flow Control (Basteroid Mix) / LCD Soundsystem - Tribulations / 808 State - Cubik / London Posse - How's Life In London? / Gang of Four - I've Found That Essense Rare / Surgeon - British Murder Boys Learn Your Lesson / Orbital - Satan / Boards Of Canada - In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country

... which is not to say any of this will get played this weekend. It seems the whole point with Optimo is that anything goes when it comes to the chaturbat music. The free mixes on their website suggest as much. The current one, Slightly Spaced, is good but Jamaica Street, a dub/reggae mix, is probably my favorite. (And the krautrock mix Sour Kraut wins for best name.) The best starting point is their two disc set How To Kill The DJ [Part 2]. Or, just check out one of this weekend's events.

Graffiti club

I opted to pass on Friday's Kid 606/Pixeltan show at Rothko, scared off by the $15 ticket when an equally tempting $5 alternative was just a block away. Look for details on Sammy Dee's appearance at the Tonic later on - for now, check out Amy's review of the Rothko show at More in the Monitor. She missed Kid 606 but was unimpressed with Pixeltan. Aside from the free DFA schwag, I think I made the right call. (I didn't realize, BTW, that Hisham from Black Dice is Pixeltan's drummer.)

Jason at PSNYC was pretty disappointed with Ian Brown's Saturday night show at Webster Hall - check out his video clip of Brown doing the Stone Roses classic "I Wanna Be Adored" to decide for yourself. Brown played a few other Roses tunes along with his solo material.

PSNYC also mentions rumors of an NYC New Order show in early May. They'll already be over here for Coachella, and they're playing Oakland on April 29 at a 5,000 capacity venue. Maybe we'll get something at the Hammerstein?

I've never been to Germany, but Geeta's descriptions and pictures of Berlin - all the graffiti, the insane club Berghain/Panoramabar, and more - have me curious to make a visit. I'd be sure to check out Cologne as well, even though I'm not quite sure if Kompakt's Total Konfusion club is still going strong. All in due time - in the short term, it'll be easier to seek out the Franz & Shape + LCD Soundsystem mash-up that Geeta mentions. I am definitely intrigued.

Autechre's new album Untilted is due out on Warp on April 18, and they'll be making a rare live appearance at Webster Hall on May 8. This might be the one time I actually don't mind a show being at Webster Hall. I'd love to see the club's regular clientele wander into the wrong room and freak out to "Rpeg."

NYC locals The National have a new jasmin live album called Alligator due out on April 11 on Beggars. They're touring the Midwest and South in March, with more US dates to follow in the summer. I hear they're good live, and I definitely enjoyed their last album. Matt Berninger's voice always reminds me of Stuart Staples from the Tindersticks, but the music's a bit noisier.

Tiny Mix Tapes tells us that - for now, at least - the only place to get Deerhoof's new Japanese EP (entirely in Japanese) will be at one of their upcoming spring shows. I'm psyched to be going on May 22, which I didn't realize will also be the tour finale.

Michael Mayer and Jake Fairley - Canal Room

I'm really glad Michael Mayer's visits to the US are becoming regular, especially since he always finds new ways to impress me, but you Europeans have it good. Mayer's NYC visit to Volume last March was 2004's best party in my book, and even people in Boston are still talking about it. His October trip found him at the Bowery Ballroom and APT on back-to-back nights, and I still hate the fact that I missed the second night. Naturally then, Wednesday's Kompakt party with Mayer at the Canal Room (and run by We Are Robots) was a must for me from the moment it was announced.

Wednesday is a horrible day for a party like this though. The Bowery Thursday show wasn't ideal, but worked out fine - Mayer went on around 10:00 (starting mellow), and rough Fridays are easier to deal with. He didn't take the decks on Wednesday until about 12:15. Though the opening DJ's were good, it instantly picked up when Mayer went on. I didn't recognize too many songs - just a remix of Touch's "Lovefood" and a Superpitcher mix - but pretty much all of it was enjoyable. Yet before I knew it, Jake Fairley's live set had started. I was actually very impressed with what I heard of him, harder and edgier than Mayer's set and definitely banging. (The word on his record Touch Not The Cat is very good.) But then it was pushing 1:30, and my alarm clock beckoned. Sigh.

Word is the rest of it was excellent, especially near the end. I heard Mayer dropped a double shot of Justus Kohncke - "Elan" from the new Doppelleben mixed into Kohncke's remix of the classic "So Weit Wie Noch Nie." Hopefully Mayer's next NYC visit will be on a weekend so I can make it to last beat again. Or maybe I'll finally sense up and use a sick day.

Mayer's tour continues for another nine dates, listed below. If you like the Kompakt sound and live near one, you should not miss out. And if you don't know it, go and be converted. Mayer's Peel Session (MP3) is mainly schaffel (shuffle-tech), which he doesn't really spin now, but it's still a good taste.

Feathers Release Party

The fact that I almost passed on Dead Meadow's Feathers release party on Tuesday was, in retrospect, sheer lunacy. I was mainly hung up on whether it'd be worth a trip on L train to see a "short set" - what I figured would be just 2 or 3 songs - but the free admission, free Red Stripe, and chance to check out Supreme Trading convinced me it'd be worthwile. Well, Supreme Trading is a great space, the Red Stripe was free as promised and plentiful, and Dead Meadow's "short set" just happened to be about 80 minutes long - not only a full show, but actually the longest set I've ever seen them do!

Dead Meadow's bluesy psychedelic rock works best live. Their last record Shivering King and Others is good, but I don't think I would have become nearly as big a fan had I not seen them a few times on that tour. Shivering King's sound isn't great relative to the live show - on stage, the drums hit a little harder, the guitars have a crisper edge, and you can count on losing yourself in the solos. Feathers does a much better job of capturing that and Dead Meadow played almost the entire album on Tuesday, starting with album opener "Let's Jump In." They fit in a few older cuts as well - the fact that "Dusty Nothing" was one of them made my night.

The show was all about Feathers though, and rightfully so. One big change with this album is the addition of guitarist Cory Shane to the band. They were just as tight with an extra person in the mix (save for a couple false starts), and they all had more freedom to do their own things. The sound wasn't always perfect, but that seemed more a function of Supreme Trading being a bar/club over a proper venue. Two songs really stood out on Tuesday - "At Her Open Door" (studio MP3) and "Through the Gates of the Sleepy Silver Door." The latter is a 13 minute epic that closes Feathers - the version that ended the show was even more epic, with drummer Stephen McCarty making John Bonham proud for most of it.

Dead Meadow will be at the Mercury Lounge on March 24 and 25. The fact that I'll be out of town for both made Tuesday's show all the more satisfying. Especially since it was free!

My complete lack of pretension

People often say there's nothing to do in Des Moines, which I always figured was just a figure of speech. But no, there literally is nothing to do in Des Moines. A handful of bars, a handful of restaurants, that's it. I went for a walk at night and the streets were desolate, just lots of parking garages and skywalks. It's a picturesque city, but a bit too quiet for my tastes. (A good steak and Monday Night Football are perfect for killing two nights though.)

I did stumble upon Zzz Records, the city's lone indie record shop and a very cool spot. It had a complete lack of pretension that was really refreshing, a bit like the old TAZ in New London, CT. The owner Nate is giving his all to get some sort of a scene going in Des Moines - a noble cause in an area with not much else going on. I read on the store's website that he even briefly hosted shows there before the city shut him down. If you ever find yourself in the Des Moines area, definitely pay Zzz Records a visit - you can even mark your hometown on a big map on the wall.

NYC was already thumbtacked, but I was still psyched to pick up copies of Frankenixon's Depth Perception and Amorphous at the store. I'd had trouble finding both CD's in NYC but the band hails from Iowa (first Ames, now Des Moines) and the lead singer Evelyn even works at Zzz occassionally. I haven't heard Amorphous yet, but Depth Perception was actually featured in the Check It section on the right for a while and it's an album I listen to with surprising frequency on my iPod. The band has a dynamic and super tight rhythm section, but whether or not you dig them will come down to what you think of Evelyn's vocals and piano parts. I once described them as a cross between Sleater-Kinney and Ben Folds Five. You're better off just trying their MP3's - "Posers" and clips of "Face to Match" and "Graceless And Unusual" specifically. I unfortunately missed Frankenixon at Pianos and the Knitting Factory in September ... hopefully they'll be back soon.

Pushing my way

Man, I am still full of invective from last Friday's visit to the Hammerstein Ballroom. I'm done ragging on Interpol. They really weren't that bad after all. Besides, it gets boring bashing on them when better targets exist for my hatin':

People who bring their digital cameras to shows. Now, I should be more specific. I don't mind it when people take a few shots here and there. Take a couple at the beginning and then maybe a few at the end. Fine. What gets me is when some Richard Avedon wannabe takes shots like every 15 friggin' seconds and then passes the camera around to all of their loser friends. I didn't buy a ticket to look at your Ophoto album, ok?

Couples who make out at shows. There seemed to be about 20 of them all around me during the Interpol show, all intent on getting to first base when I'm just trying to get my money's worth.

And to the people who insist on pushing their way to the front of the audience, spill their beer, flail their elbows and step on my feet, I hate you. If you want to be close during a show, come early. Otherwise, stay outta my way. You've been warned.

Hating done.