- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Magnetic Fields

Distortion

Nonesuch Records

Former music critic and Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt must know that a well-crafted press kit is a writer’s best friend. It offers the grateful scribe effort-free context, lending his or her prose a pleasing whiff of honest erudition.

In the case of “Distortion,” the first Magnetic Fields release since the poppy, lo-fi “i” from 2004, Mr. Merritt supplies a road map to understanding the currents of influence that led him to compose the 13 tracks herein.

His goal with the album is to adapt the primal, fuzzy trance-inducing pop sound of “Psychocandy,” the debut record by the influential U.K. combo, the Jesus and Mary Chain.

But this turns out to be more of a hook than a theme. While it’s interesting as an academic exercise to listen to “Distortion” alongside “Psychocandy,” it only serves to throw into relief the older pop that governs the music of Mr. Merritt and the brothers Jim and William Reid who founded the Mary Chain.

It’s impossible to chart musical influence with chain-of-custody certitude, but it seems clear from Mr. Merritt’s previous work that he was borrowing from Phil Spector and Brian Wilson without refracting their sensibilities through the distorted haze of the Mary Chain.

Where “Psychocandy” is hard-edged, blistering sonic experience, “Distortion” feels more considered and self-aware. It doesn’t help that unlike the Reids, Mr. Merritt and his band are extremely skilled musicians.

Where Mary Chain relied on jagged edge guitar riffs and borrowed Spector drumbeats, the Magnetic Fields use a specially-rigged piano and cello and even accordion to create a cool chamber-pop sound that wears its distortion like an ironic mask.

The Mary Chain cranked out an experimental — and as history would have it — groundbreaking fusion of pop styles. Mr. Merritt, by way of contrast, wears his influence without anxiety: His is a cool and measured sound, expertly rendered.

Lyrically, Mr. Merritt excels as usual. While breathless and not infrequent comparisons to Noel Coward seem overblown, he has a knack for blending wit and feeling without coming off as droll or sentimental. “Too Drunk to Dream,” the bounciest track on the album, is a lovelorn lament contrasting the burdens of sobriety with the abandon of intoxication. Mr. Merritt sings: “I gotta get too drunk to dream/ cause dreaming only makes me blue/ I gotta get too drunk to dream/ because I only dream of you.”

“California Girls” is a poison-tipped dart of a song aimed squarely at the silicon-enhanced facade of the left coast. Shirley Simms, a frequent Magnetic Fields collaborator, takes the lead on vocals, singing, “See them on their big bright screen/ tan and blond and seventeen/eating nonfood keeps them mean/ but they’re young forever.”

Here Mr. Merritt appears to be reaching back past the Mary Chain to pay a backhanded tribute to the Beach Boys, and their smarmy paean on the same topic.

Mr. Merritt announced that he wouldn’t be playing the songs in concert as recorded on the album because the distortion levels would put the performers in danger of hearing damage.

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