Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What's Playing | Magnetic Fields - Distortion

The staff here at Euclid Records has radically varied tastes in music, so it’s an event like the planets have aligned or something when we all like the same album. We all love the new Magnetic Fields album, so we thought we’d take a group approach to writing this review.

With a sound that is dense, dark and layered with guitar feedback, Stephin Merritt was able to fulfill his ambition of outdoing the Jesus and Mary Chain in the studio. Here’s what we have to say about some of the tracks:

Stephin Merritt likes to challenge himself as a songwriter, so it didn’t seem odd that he’d use the structure of a Gregorian Chant for the intro of Too Drunk To Dream, but the thing that jars you out of complacency is the frequent use of the word “shitfaced.” The rest of the song sounds a lot like this—you’re at a party, drunk, dizzy and about to pass out on the couch. The last thing you remember as the room spins and your eyes open and close is seeing debauched party goers forming a can-can line and dancing around the apartment, occasionally spilling drinks while performing high kicks. – Jen Eide

The sound of this record is modeled after Psychocandy, the first Jesus & Mary Chain record, and it completely captures the distant, amateurish approach to drums that they used, not to mention the especially nasty, overtone-filled feedback that made the first Ramones album sound like it was a Roy Thomas Baker production or something. But, of course, Merritt isn’t an amateur, and he knows all the songwriting tricks that his idols of Broadway taught him. So, even on a three-chord psycho instrumental rave-up like “Three-Way,” there’s a heck of a lot of purely musical stuff going on in the mix. Piano chords, echoed guitar melodies, and of course the chants of “Three-Way” thrown in at random intervals. Sex as ironic early 60s party signifier! What a concept.

The rest of the album could have been done as a typical Magnetic Fields album, because Merritt’s songs are clever, funny, pointed, and melodically rich as they ever have been. But, I’m glad they went with the J&M Chain idea, because it adds an edge to this music that was missing even on a masterpiece like 69 Love Songs. Sure, “The Nun’s Litany” would catch my ear with a strummed acoustic guitar and Shirley Simms’ typical matter-of-fact vocal approach to lyrics about being a topless waitress so she could make her mother cry. But, throw in the feedback, the dirge drums, and the overdriven keyboards, and you’ve got something that reveals new layers of information every time you hear it.

Oh, and I think I remember Jen at a party at my place many years ago forming a can-can line and dancing around the apartment, and if she didn’t spill drinks or perform high kicks, she did indeed demonstrate her ability to do the splits, thus sending all the salsa flying into the wall, leaving a stain that looked very much as if somebody had been shot directly into my wall. And that was before anybody had ever even heard “Too Drunk to Dream.” – Steve Pick

I have to start my section of the review by saying while I enjoy the Jesus and Mary Chain, I honestly don’t know their catalogue enough to really make a comparison. Seems like most everyone else has got that covered for me. Am I showing my age?

Stephin Merritt has used the titles for his last few Magnetic Field records to let you know exactly what you’re in for. Calling this one “Distortion” is more than fitting. Running through every track is a great crackle and constant feedback. (Refer to the 69 Love Songs track “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” as an example.) But like most Magnetic Fields’ songs, there is plenty of structure throughout. There’s no need to worry Merritt is taking an experimental noise rock route. This record is full of his sweet love songs and completely depressing, but clever break up songs. The standout track for me is “Please Stop Dancing,” a downer of a tune about trying to get someone out of your head. The lyrics may crush your heart, but the beat will keep your feet moving. “I’ll Dream Alone” has Merritt beautifully belting out a ballad to show he’s still got that voice. For all you decaying out there, “Zombie Boy” is a catchy little tune that would make the undead from the “Thriller” video do their moves. Overall, this is the best thing to come out of Stephin Merritt since 69 Love Songs. – Jack Probst

I’ll admit I never got much of a buzz from the Velvet Underground’s distinctive drone until bands like the Modern Lovers and the Vulgar Boatmen recontextualized the basic sound for simple folk like myself who have never been flayed by a transvestite, or even harbored fantasies of such things. Recontextualized into songs about driving around, having crushes, and waiting for the phone to ring, those mock-Velvets grooves suddenly sounded like real life to less-nihilistic music lovers far from the Lower East Side. And in a similar vein, I gotta say I get more of a kick from the Magnetic Fields’ Psychocandy pastiche than I ever did from the genuine article. The Reid brothers’ odes to smack and unspecific gloom ‘n’ doom never struck a chord with me personally, but Stephin Merritt’s songs of boozin’ and sardonic regret are something I can understand! Having couched dozens of his misanthropic ditties in twinky synth-pop and/or rinky-dink Tin Pan Alley throwback arrangements, Merritt reserves the right to try wrapping a few tunes in a sonic toxic cloud more reflective of his usually-sour state of mind. He might eventually worry that he threw away or at least trivialized some of his best songs by wrapping this cactus cloak around his caustic croak--but, for the fans, Distortion is a welcome departure in a prolific career full of surprises. In a couple of years, when he’s put out about half a dozen more records, we’ll remember this one fondly as “the fuzzy one.” –Darren Snow

And, of course, you can buy this and other fine Magnetic Fields albums right here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, Jack, you are clearly showing your age. Why, you must be sixty years old, at least.