1.15.2008

Music Review: Magnetic Fields' Distortion

by Stephen Tringali

The Magnetic Fields' latest album, Distortion, is an aptly titled one, the most obvious reason for which is that instead of allowing their quirky indie folk/pop to shine through stereo speakers, the band has draped their sound in a thick curtain of feedback.

It’s easy to imagine many of these tunes appearing on previous Magnetic Fields records. The sparkling melodies present themselves on the very surface. But just beneath that sparkling sheen the differentiating factor lies: a rhythm guitar or a bass guitar provides a steady wall of feedback and distortion. And those folk instruments, which were ever so present on 69 Love Songs, are totally absent from this album’s sonic palette. One might even go so far as to say that the band is emulating the Velvet Underground, specifically their song “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

Though the Magnetic Fields’ attempt to marry melodic touches with amplifier squalor does prove the Velvet Underground’s role as musical muse, Distortion doesn’t exactly succeed in the same way that the Velvet Underground’s music, particularly an album like White Light/White Heat, did. There are one too many instances where the Magnetic Fields’ aesthetic emulation compromise their sonic results. For example, the song “California Girls” takes a Beach Boys’-influenced melody, crushes it through a heavily distorted amp, and illustrates that sound with these lyrics: “They come on like squares / They get off like squirrels / I hate California girls.”

That’s real cute, right? It’s a joke because, well, there’s this terribly sweet music playing, while we sing about how terribly superficial and coked out these California chicks are. Yes, Magnetic Fields, the joke’s pretty clear. Everyone will certainly understand the song’s irony. What makes that gimmick sound so pathetic is how effectively previous bands exploited it. The Jesus and Mary Chain, for instance, used a similar contrast on their 1985 classic, Psychocandy. That the Mary Chain pulls off this marriage, which was at the time an unlikely one, with such a straight face is a testament to their wisdom.

The Magnetic Fields cannot bear to manage such a straight face. Most every lyric on this record must be sung with a sly wink and an often predictably dark twist. It grows old by the time listeners hit the eighth track, “Too Drunk To Dream,” a song on which Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt chants in his usual, church-choir-inspired delivery: “Sober / Life is a prison / Shit-faced / It is a blessing.”

Despite some of these criticisms, a few tracks succeed, particularly the opening one, entitled “Three-Way.” The band puts their synth-pop confections before their tongue-in-cheek lyrics and is better off for it.

(Promotional photo of Magnetic Fields performing in Atlanta in 2004 by Clay Walker for Nonesuch Records. The band will begin touring this year with a concert in Northampton, MA on Feb. 11.)






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1 comments:

Rick Rockwell said...

Various critics have also noted that Magnetic Fields have borrowed some ideas from the Jesus and Mary Chain in how they satirized the Beach Boys, so most are in agreement about Distortion.

However, the Jesus and Mary Chain are not the first ones to come up with the idea either. Todd Rundgren disassembled the Beach Boys several times in the 1970s both as homage and satire. So perhaps the Jesus and Mary Chain actually lifted from Rundgren. Credit where credit is due....

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