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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Magnetic Fields: "Distortion"

The Magnetic Fields have been around for the better part of two decades, keeping fans happy by releasing albums every couple of years. Distortion comes to us a little less than 4 years after the band's previous album, i. Both i and its predecessor, 69 Love Songs, were concept albums, wrapped around a basic idea. It should come as no surprise then that Distortion follows in much the same way. Though there is no thematic ribbon that ties the songs together, the actual album is in fact a mess of distortion and feedback.

It's an odd thing to hear on a Magnetic Fields album. As a band who has made a name for themselves by making stately and generally straightforward music, something as raw and dirty as distortion seems like a mismatch. Surprisingly though, this new element allows the band to explore some previously uncharted territory. 60s pop is the clear sound that Stephin Merritt and his bandmates are going for this time around, with driving and repetitive guitar lines that are catchy in and of themselves. Album opener, "Three-Way," for example, makes for enjoyable song despite the fact that Merritt's trademarked lyrical wit never makes an appearance. It is, rather, guitars, drums, and keyboards that make the song as enjoyable as it is. It is here that we're first greeted with what Distortion promotes with it's title; a decidedly lo-fi sound with blaring mids and a consistent layer of distortion and feedbacking guitars below the music itself.

Despite it being the theme of the album, however, it is also my least favorite part. While songs like "California Girls" and "Please Stop Dancing" undoubtedly benefit from this aesthetic, others like "Old Fools" would seem better suited to a more traditional Magnetic Fields sound. It's kind of a double-edged sword. Just when you hear a song that you absolutely adore, you're greeted with another that just doesn't seem to fit. Even Stephin Merritt, with all his theatrics, seems somewhat out of place on an album as loud and messy as this. And it is, perhaps, for this reason that the album's better moments are sung, not by Merritt, but by Shirley Simms (who can also be heard on past Magnetic Fields albums).

But that itself is more of a minor annoyance than anything else. Despite the fact that some songs don't benefit from the distortion as many others do, each song on Distortion is undeniably catchy and worth listening to. "California Girls" takes a unabashed beach rock riff and turns it into a funny, catchy song. Shirley Simms sings of the subjects, "They breathe coke and they have affairs with each passing rock star." It is not only one of the better tracks on the album, but also the first song you'll undoubtedly find yourself singing along to. "Please Stop Dancing" finds Merritt and Simms trading off on vocals, and the song's steady rhythm just begs for a good toe-tapping or head-bobbbing.

"Drive On, Driver" is a touching, and still catchy ballad sung once again by Simms. The melody is beautifully written, and will definitely please most listeners. "Too Drunk To Dream" is classic Magnetic Fields, and Merritt's shining moment on the album. The beginning of the song cleverly examines the way things always seem better when you're drunk. It's absolutely hysterical. He later sings (in his typical theatrical manner), "I've gotta get too drunk to dream cause dreaming only makes me blue," in what is sure to be yet another sing-along favorite.

Overall, the album is pretty enjoyable and a clear step up from the disappointment that was i. Though Stephen Merritt really takes a back seat to Shirley Simms, Distortion is no less enjoyable because of it. If you can get past all the blaring noise that is consistently going on in the background and deal with the abnormally high mids, I'm convinced that most anybody can find something to enjoy on this album. For fans of Magnetic Fields, it is an absolute must buy. For everyone else, it comes highly recommended.

Key Tracks:
1. "Three-Way"
2. "California Girls"
3. "Please Stop Dancing"
4. "Too Drunk to Dream"
5. "The Nun's Litany"

7 out of 10 Stars

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