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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Music: Jesus and Mary Chain -- They have Risen! So Sayeth Magnetic Fields

Magnetic Fields ride a freight elevator together

Magnetic Fields' mastermind Stephen Merritt is a man constantly in search of a gimmick to hang his new albums on. 69 Love Songs, the band's brilliant box set that contained exactly what the title promised, is still the most successful of these, but their last album i (all songs started with the letter "i") and their new one Distortion all strive to take their titles literally.

Hmmm Distortion, what's that gonna sound like? It sounds like The Magnetic Fields, only distorted. Duh. What that means are clever knowing pop songs which stay (mostly) on the right side of twee. The joke here is that Merritt has acknowledged The Jesus and Mary Chain's debut classic Psychocandy as a model, but rather than repeat their formula of Phil Spector pop dipped in an acid bath he substitutes himself for Spector. This leads to some funny moments of distorted accordions and such, though it's a jest meant for the music geek.

Distortion also marks the degree that the Reid brothers of JAMC fame have become a major indie-rock touchstone, influencing some of last year's best records by The Liars, Ponys, and by the brothers themselves backing up and producing their younger sister Linda on her delightful Sister Vanilla album. Sister Vanilla has proven to be a dry run for this year's Major Reunion, the JAMC themselves.

Back to Magnetic Fields though -- is Distortion any good? Some fans will undoubtedly rebel at the conceit of Merritt's songs slathered in distortion and feedback (though it rarely reaches JAMC style squalling). the underlying songs are solid though, noticeably more consistent than the ones on i. "Too Drunk to Dream" is a typically wry highlight, starting as it does like a demented sea shanty"Sober, life is a prison, Shitfaced, it is a blessing". "Drive On, Driver", "California Girls", and the wonderfully misanthropic "Mr. Mistletoe" all make for a most enjoyable set. Also, though the production apes the Reids, Merritt's songwriting is distinctly his own, his deep baritone is as baritone-y as ever, and the lovely lead vocals of Shirley Simms on several tracks keep this away from bald-faced imitation.

Distortion gets 4 out of 5 Psychcandys:

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