Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Caught by the Fuzz
a review by Dmitri jr.


The Magnetic Fields -- Distortion

The problem with some Stephin Merritt songs is they have to live next to the other Stephin Merritt songs. The great ones. The devastating ones.

You can make it straight through all three volumes of 69 Love Songs in longish afternoon, though doesn’t everybody eventually skip through “The Cactus Where YYa hear me bro?our Heart Should Be” to “I Think I Need a New Heart”? Why even sequence two “heart” together? On Distortion, the first Magnetic Fields album in four years, Stephin does it again, when the so-so “I Dream Alone” unfairly comes a mere one song after the show-stopping Cole Porter-Paul Westerberg mash-up “Too Drunk to Dream.”

I don’t pity a prolific songwriter for having to suffer in the shadow of his own best work. (Surely, Steve-o has more than enough uber-fans to tend to the less obvious parts of his back-catalog) Still there’s some itsy heartbreak to having to be the Ira to your own George. Sort of shocking Merritt hasn’t already written a song about it.

On Distortion, there’s both the average and the above average. The distortion of the title is two-fold:

45 MVP Eddie Mayo1.
Every single song is soaked in the stuff. Awash in hisses and hums, fuzz and feedback, Merritt and crew go out of their way to make a record that’s both ode to psychocandy shoe-gazer bliss and the way heirloom pop sounds played off scratched 45s or distant radio stations on cheap speakers. The waves of noise here are powerful, but intentional and manicured. Pianos chime, guitars buzz and processed strings drone but there’s an internal order anchored on the stateliness of Merritt’s and drummer Claudia Gonson’s vocals. Any rocking out is done on a restrained, relative scale and, fitting Merritt’s sense of humor, the noise is understated, even elegant.

Litany of GunsThe songs are all written from distorted points of view or altered states: drunkenness, bitterness, lust. There are ironic narrators like the rich guy in “Driver, Drive On” telling his chauffer to leave the lover who he just through out of the car in the dust or the sister in “Nun’s Litany” wishing she had become a topless waitress.

Even near-instrumental “Three-Way” booms along without words except for the occasional gleeful shouts of the title, which is kinda of it’s own clever little commentary the probably fairly complicated logistics of group sex we’re willing to gloss over.

When it hits, Merritt’s cleverness bowls you over. When it doesn’t, you feel like you’re listening to They Might Be Giants castoffs. If you want to get reductive, it be easy to point out Merritt’s most recent projects include a series of Volvo ads and helping Daniel Handler crank-out Lemon Snickett tie-ins. Maybe this album is an excuse to cut loose and play bad with noise and sex jokes.

Spencer's under the sandboxThere’s this disconnect between the proper vocals and the noise surrounding them. On other albums and his 6ths project, Merritt has no problem farming out songs to, let’s say, more stylistically appropriate singers. I think he deliberate kept these for himself and Gonsons because their voices seem to come from another time. His is a deep narcoleptic croon is almost able to swing, but not quite. Hers might pass as back up in unrefined girl group.

Sometimes the disconnect is jarring, like the Caribbean undead-sex-slave dirge “Zombie Boy.” Sometimes it’s gorgeous and startling, like the sad bastard carol “ Mr. Mistletoe” and “I Hate California Girls,” which plays in alternative reality where a surly Brian Wilson threatens the cast of “Laguna Beach” with an ax. More often than not, the songs seem to be floating in from some strange, fuzzy past—slowly fading, yet timeless.

rating: 3/5

-Dmitri jr.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Yale Bloor said...

that yellow pic of bry wilson almost looks like chuckles klosterman, uncle grambo's man crush....by the way when and where will grambo surface next?

11:26 PM  
Anonymous DmJr said...

somebody doesn't have his google alerts working!

2:42 PM  
Blogger Yale Bloor said...

Grambo on Defamer.....what a sell out..I always knew moving to NYC hanging out in East Village and wearing bomber jackets would be the end of that boy ....first VH1 and now this...hardly a step up the career ladder...I'm thinking my invite to Burning Man this year and some mind expanding drugs are just what the lad needs

10:40 PM  

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