|Distortion, Magnetic Fields’ second Nonesuch release, features the brilliant melodies and wry lyrics that composer and band leader
Stephin Merritt has long been praised for, but, as the album title suggests, he serves them up with a twist. If the late, great Cole Porter
had somehow been resurrected just in time to appear at the Coachella indie-rock fest, the results might sound something like this –
“small, ironic tales of love and woe,” as National Public Radio has described Merritt’s songs, startlingly enveloped in layers of live
feedback that recall the noisy pop provocations of legendary Scottish quartet The Jesus and Mary Chain.|
As album producer, Merritt takes a completely novel approach to his deployment of feedback, going well beyond mere fuzzed-out guitar to incorporate cello, piano and accordion into his mad-scientist mix. What he’s conjured up is a gorgeous drone that reverberates over the length of 13 tunes – from the exuberantly rocking opener, “Three Way,” to the soused, sing-along lament, “Too Drunk To Dream,” to the bittersweet closer, “Courtesans.” It’s like hearing a great three-minute pop classic from someone else’s car radio in the middle of a traffic jam: melodic bliss surfacing above the din.
Merritt’s doleful baritone is employed to great effect on the brooding, lonely-guy balladry of “Mr. Mistletoe” and the horror moviemeets- romantic comedy of “Zombie Boy.” But he swaps lead vocal chores throughout Distortion with Shirley Simms, a singer who longtime fans will recognize from her performances on the Magnetic Fields’ career-making1999 three-disc set, 69 Love Songs. Merritt calls Simms’ voice “as pop as pop gets” and gives her some of the cleverest numbers, including “California Girls,” a Beach Boys-style anti-anthem about murderous envy, and “The Nun’s Litany,” a chastely rendered list of extremely naughty fantasies.
Stephin Merritt’s work attracts a wide-ranging audience, from connoisseurs of the American Songbook, for which Merritt is arguably making some serious 21st Century contributions, to indie rock fans who admire his innovative use of chamber instrumentation and his deadpan humor.