The Magnetic Fields, 'Distortion' (Nonesuch)

Critical Mass
Label: Nonesuch

by Lindsey Thomas

Since releasing the Magnetic Fields' seventh album, i, in 2004, Stephin Merritt has dabbled in musical theater with Showtunes and scored the audiobooks for Daniel "Lemony Snicket" Handler's A Series of Unfortunate Events kid-lit series (under the name the Gothic Archies). Maybe the offbeat side projects explain his unexpected interest in rock.

Distortion is Merritt's admitted stab at a Jesus and Mary Chain record, albeit one populated by West Coast bimbos and a regretfully chaste nun. To get the appropriate wall-of-fuzz production, i's ukuleles and most of its strings have been shelved in favor of piano feedback, constant guitar reverb, and a general empty-warehouse resonance. The creeping B-movie love song "Zombie Boy" benefits from the background noise, and "Too Drunk to Dream" has fun twisting the Beach Boys' familiar, sunny vibe with squeals and screeches. But more often, the production distracts or even smothers -- when Shirley Simms steps to the mic, her already wispy vocals get lost amid the racket. She does, however, do a bang-up job with the deadpan delivery of salacious couplets in "The Nun's Litany."

Such bon mots -- whether bitter, naughty, or sweet -- are Merritt's forte, which is why his past lyrical themes (songs about love, songs beginning with the letter I) worked more naturally than Distortion's aural exercises. Ultimately, the album succeeds despite the extra fuss, not because of it.

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