Distortion CD (2008)

Artist: Magnetic Fields

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Product Overview

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.


Label Mti Home Video
SKU 206678451
UPC 075597996548
UPC 14 00075597996548
Format CD
Release Date 1/15/2008
Author Magnetic Fields
Technical Info
Engineer Charles Newman
Producer Charles Newman
CatalogID 7559799654
Lable Name Nonesuch (USA)
Released 01/14/2008
Original Release 2008
Number of Discs 1
SPARE Code n/a
Length 38m : 44s
Mono/Stereo Stereo
Studio/Live Studio
UPC 00075597996548
Album Notes and Credits
Personnel: Shirley Simms (vocals); John Woo (guitar); Sam Davol (cello); Daniel Handler (accordion); Claudia Gonson (piano, Farfisa, drums, background vocals).
Audio Mixers: Tom Rogers; Stephin Merritt; Charles Newman.
Recording information: Mother West, NY.
Photographer: Marcelo Krasilcic.
From the beginning, every Magnetic Fields album has had a specific musical or thematic concept: for example, 1991's DISTANT PLASTIC TREES was a tribute to synth minimalists Young Marble Giants, 1994's THE CHARM OF THE HIGHWAY STRIP was influenced by country-music road songs, and of course 1999's 69 LOVE SONGS was self-explanatory. DISTORTION, as the title suggests, is a glorious mess of feedback, surface noise, and other forms of distortion that sounds like a throwback to singer-songwriter and mastermind Stephin Merritt's indie-rock roots, before his later incarnation as a generational answer to Irving Berlin's pop classicism. The songs themselves are highly reminiscent of the early Magnetic Fields; "California Girls" and "Old Fools" in particular sound like they would have fit nicely on any of the group's early records. However, the staticky howl of the production, more in keeping with the likes of My Bloody Valentine or even Sonic Youth, might surprise old fans at first. Stephin Merritt has never made an album like DISTORTION before, and given his track record, he likely never will again.
Professional Reviews
Rolling Stone (p.61) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "DISTORTION has an indelible identity. It rocks, in this case a meaningful, temporary departure. Its unmelded sonic gestalt suits its thematic disquiet."
Rolling Stone (p.91) - Ranked #25 in Rolling Stone's 50 Best Albums Of 2008 -- "[E]voking old AM-radio tunes remixed by a mad genius."
Spin (p.100) - 3 stars out of 5 -- "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."
Entertainment Weekly (p.83) - "[B]oth wintry and lush, buoyant and black-hearted....Shot through with jangling boy-girl harmonies..." -- Grade: A-
Uncut (p.84) - 3 stars out of 5 -- "DISTORTION at its best is beguiling and quietly devastating."
CMJ - "DISTORTION's Jesus And Mary Chain fixation adds icy muscle to Merritt's downy, sad melodies."
Q (Magazine) (p.99) - 3 stars out of 5 -- "With collaborator Shirley Simms splitting vocals with Merritt, there is plenty to enjoy..."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.108) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "It's faux-naif orch-pop that crashes and thunders. Merritt being Merritt, the work also packs plenty of sardonic wit..."
Blender (Magazine) (p.99) - 3.5 stars out of 5 -- "Every instrument here distorts, giving tearjerkers like 'I'll Dream Alone' complementary grit."
Harp (magazine) (p.93) - "Merritt takes on the crushingly forlorn balladry of 'Mr. Mistletoe' and the cool aching romanticism of 'Too Drunk To Dream.' Exquisite."
Clash (magazine) (p.106) - "Miniature masterpieces such as 'California Girls' and 'Drive On, Driver' exhibit the type of feisty flamboyance in the face of unrequited devotion that will be instantly familiar to all followers of songwriter Stephin Merritt's beautifully crafted melancholia..."
The Word (magazine) - "The idea of enveloping everything from guitar to piano to cello in clouds of feedback and fuzz is both unexpected and remarkably convincing."
Record Collector (magazine) (p.94) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "'Too Drunk To Dream' deploys Stephen Merritt's lugubrious-hilarious baritone to great emotive effect..."
Disc 1
1 Three-Way
2 California Girls
3 Old Fools
4 Xavier Says
5 Mr. Mistletoe
6 Please Stop Dancing
7 Drive On, Driver
8 Too Drunk To Dream
9 Till the Bitter End
10 I'll Dream Alone
11 Nun's Litany, The
12 Zombie Boy
13 Courtesans

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