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Magnetic Fields:: Distortion (Album Review)

Noise has had a long and distinguished pop career. These days, Phil Spector is best known as a bewigged eccentric whose retrial for murder is due to begin later this year. In the early Sixties, however, as a producer he upended pop music with his Wall of Sound technique, swamping the pretty vocals of girl groups like the Ronettes with a saturated instrumental roar. No one had ever heard anything like it.

Distortion fed back again in the late Seventies, with punk. In 1984, sulky Scots the Jesus and Mary Chain took the butterfly-in-treacle rush of girl-group Spector and added more feedback to create haiku-like squalls. Happily, they’re touring again, as are their peers My Bloody Valentine.

Enter wry New Yorker Stephin Merritt, Mr Magnetic Field. Merritt is a pop auteur of great distinction, if not wide renown; he probably earns more comparisons to Cole Porter than royalties. He might be best known for his songs accompanying the Lemony Snicket series of children’s books rather than the Magnetic Fields’ triple album of 1999, 69 Love Songs. (But was ‘Girls in Their Summer Clothes’, on Bruce Springsteen’s Magic album, a Merritt tribute?) Merritt also suffers from hyperacusis, an over-sensitivity to sound, a poignant side-note to this album.

Because on Distortion, the Magnetic Fields set out to out-Jesus the Mary Chain and out-Spector Phil, encasing his pithy melodies in the sort of whistles and groans that usually prefigure an eye-watering bill for the boiler. Every instrument purposely feeds back, including the cello, accordion and even the piano, which Merritt hopes is a first.

If all this sounds like a studio experiment, rest assured: the melodies speak louder than the din. Merritt’s lady-like foil Shirley Simms is at the fore, hawking the tunes hard. But the finest moments are Merritt’s. Normally, he sings like a depressed bloodhound, but on ‘Too Drunk to Dream’, he chirrups away, rhapsodising the perils and succour of being ‘shit-faced’.

A lovely addition to the noisy canon and a barbed new year tonic.