Thursday, February 21, 2008

Distort Yourself

This week, I've got The Magnetic Fields' Distortion in heavy rotation. I've been a Stephin Merritt fan since 69 Love Songs, and I thought I was one of the best releases of 2004, but it has taken me a while to get into this latest offering. Merritt hasn't been at all idle the past four years. He writes and records with four different "bands" (most of which consist of him playing all instruments, with an occasional guest in the studio), but this is the Merritt incarnation I enjoy the most.

What makes this album a departure for Merritt, and makes the title apt, is the presence of distortion. Merritt's usual pop melodies are here in abundance, but they are layered with ambient sound, feedback, overdubs, etc. The net effect is a sound that might have been recorded underwater, or in a paper bag, a palimpsest of noise accompanying Merritt's jaunty tunes. Which is not to say it's loud, or discordant, or atonal. The layering and the use of varying musical styles instead produces a sound that's contemporary yet timeless and impossible to place. Distortion contains within its melodies the past 45 years of pop history. The best way to describe it is if the Shangri-Las merged with the circa-Pet Sounds Beach Boys, became a punk band, spent a decade listening to Garbage, added a cellist and accordionist, and then recorded this album.

This connection to pop history is made overt in Merritt's twisted "California Girls," not a cover but a complete re-imagining. The song begins, "See them on their big bright screen/tan and blonde and seventeen/Eating nonfood keeps them mean/but they're young forever/If they must grow up/they marry dukes and earls/I hate California girls." And it goes on from there, hysterically. Sense of humor and of play is central to Merrit's lyrics. Who wouldn't like an album that features songs titled "Please Stop Dancing", "Too Drunk to Dream", or "Three-Way" (which contains only one lyric, the word "three-way" exclaimed at intervals)? And who wouldn't like an album where Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket novels and of The Basic Eight, plays the accordion?

If you aren't familiar with The Magnetic Fields, give them a try. If you are, then you're probably catching one of their shows this weekend at Town Hall, and maybe I'll see you there.

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