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2008 album from singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt and co. Distortion features the brilliant melodies and wry lyrics that 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 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. 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.
Fans of the Jesus and Mary Chain will surely be thrilled with Distortion, which lives up to its title in the first few seconds of the jovial opener, "Three Way." The entire album is awash in a bed of feedback and noise sharp enough to match bandleader/Svengali Stephen Merritt's notoriously wry lyrical jabs. In its willful obfuscation of simple melodies, Distortion recalls MF's earlier, more electronic, more reverb-soaked output. Of course, Merritt's songs could probably work with any arrangement, cacophonous or otherwise. His lyrics and succinct melodies survive the treatment, and his inner Cole Porter remains intact. "California Girls" features regular collaborator Shirley Simms cheerily plotting a battle-axe attack on some of the more blonde and plastic elements of California society (Simms handles vocal duties on about half the tunes here). "Mr. Mistletoe" is an anti-carol with a forlorn Merritt attaching his romantic betrayal to various holiday symbols. "Too Drunk to Dream" is classic Merritt, with an upbeat but down-on-its-luck refrain: "I gotta get too drunk to dream / Because I only dream of you." Drenched in distortion, MF's now-expected acoustic instruments--cello, piano, accordion--create some remarkable textures. Merritt and crew remain full of songs and surprises, and in finding their ability to make a ruckus, have created an inarguably singular offering. --Jason Pace
Top Customer Reviews
Personally, I couldn't get enough of his new and eighth album Distortion.
Certainly you'll not hear anything like this record all year.
Merritt employs no synths - but he'll give you everything from a piano to a cello all bubble wrapped in a spiky Spector-esque wall of sound with layers of feedback, a la his big heroes, Jesus and the Mary Chain.
If you try hard enough, you can hear distorted elements of the distorted piece of musical genius that was Distortion.
It works - the tunes are no more than three minutes long but they turn conventional sounds right on their head.
Standout tracks : 'Three-Way', 'The Nun's Litany', 'Too Drunk to Dream', 'Mr Mistletoe', 'California Girls.
"Distortion" is unique in exactly that - distortion. All through the album you hear distortion in the background.. something which you'll either love or hate (or maybe both, as in my case). There's also a lot of fun in this album with songs such as "California Girls." Hits include: 'Three-way', 'Please Stop Dancing' and 'The Nun's Litany.'
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
It's an odd thing to hear on a Magnetic Fields album. As a band who has made a name for themselves by making stately and generally straightforward music, something as raw and dirty as distortion seems like a mismatch. Surprisingly though, this new element allows the band to explore some previously uncharted territory. 60s pop is the clear sound that Stephin Merritt and his bandmates are going for this time around, with driving and repetitive guitar lines that are catchy in and of themselves. Album opener, "Three-Way," for example, makes for enjoyable song despite the fact that Merritt's trademarked lyrical wit never makes an appearance. It is, rather, guitars, drums, and keyboards that make the song as enjoyable as it is. It is here that we're first greeted with what Distortion promotes with it's title; a decidedly lo-fi sound with blaring mids and a consistent layer of distortion and feedbacking guitars below the music itself.
Despite it being the theme of the album, however, it is also my least favorite part. While songs like "California Girls" and "Please Stop Dancing" undoubtedly benefit from this aesthetic, others like "Old Fools" would seem better suited to a more traditional Magnetic Fields sound. It's kind of a double-edged sword. Just when you hear a song that you absolutely adore, you're greeted with another that just doesn't seem to fit. Even Stephin Merritt, with all his theatrics, seems somewhat out of place on an album as loud and messy as this. And it is, perhaps, for this reason that the album's better moments are sung, not by Merritt, but by Shirley Simms (who can also be heard on past Magnetic Fields albums).
But that itself is more of a minor annoyance than anything else. Despite the fact that some songs don't benefit from the distortion as many others do, each song on Distortion is undeniably catchy and worth listening to. "California Girls" takes a unabashed beach rock riff and turns it into a funny, catchy song. Shirley Simms sings of the subjects, "They breathe coke and they have affairs with each passing rock star." It is not only one of the better tracks on the album, but also the first song you'll undoubtedly find yourself singing along to. "Please Stop Dancing" finds Merritt and Simms trading off on vocals, and the song's steady rhythm just begs for a good toe-tapping or head-bobbbing.
"Drive On, Driver" is a touching, and still catchy ballad sung once again by Simms. The melody is beautifully written, and will definitely please most listeners. "Too Drunk To Dream" is classic Magnetic Fields, and Merritt's shining moment on the album. The beginning of the song cleverly examines the way things always seem better when you're drunk. It's absolutely hysterical. He later sings (in his typical theatrical manner), "I've gotta get too drunk to dream cause dreaming only makes me blue," in what is sure to be yet another sing-along favorite.
Overall, the album is pretty enjoyable and a clear step up from the disappointment that was i. Though Stephen Merritt really takes a back seat to Shirley Simms, Distortion is no less enjoyable because of it. If you can get past all the blaring noise that is consistently going on in the background and deal with the abnormally high mids, I'm convinced that most anybody can find something to enjoy on this album. For fans of Magnetic Fields, it is an absolute must buy. For everyone else, it comes highly recommended.
2. "California Girls"
3. "Please Stop Dancing"
4. "Too Drunk to Dream"
5. "The Nun's Litany"
7 out of 10 Stars
The idea is not as weird as it sounds. In a way, it is a throwback to the early days of the Magnetic Fields. The first two albums and the "House of Tomorrow" EP also featured a layered electronic sound. Traces of this sound could still be found in "69 Love Songs"--think of "I Don't Want to Get Over You" or "I'm Sorry I Love You." The name of the band even seems to hint at this approach to recording.
On "Distortion," however, the approach is taken to an extreme, and the results are sometimes hard to endure. It doesn't help that the songwriting is not as strong as it is on most Magnetic Fields albums. Half of the songs are sung by Stephin Merritt and the other half by Shirley Simms, and for whatever reason, the Shirley songs are all better than the Stephin songs. A few of the Stephin songs are almost torturous to listen to, particularly "Mr. Mistletoe" and "Zombie Boy," as his deep voice mingles unappealingly with the murky production.
Among the Shirley songs, though, there are a few gems. "The Nun's Litany" is ostensibly just a long list of sexual perversions in which the song's heroine wishes to indulge, and yet it somehow avoids being crass and is actually kind of touching, as she longs to find some kind--ANY kind--of sexual identity. "California Girls" and "Xavier Says" are also supremely catchy and full of bitter humor. The final song, "Courtesans," has a classic melody that any folk songwriter would be proud to write. In this setting, however, it loses some of its impact, in spite of yet another crisp vocal performance by Shirley Simms. Her voice has a way of cutting through all of this sonic weirdness. Maybe this is why Merritt had a female singer handle all of the vocals on the first two Magnetic Fields albums.
Even when this album succeeds, however, it succeeds in spite of the sound, rather than because of it. Which leads to the question: What was the point of all this noisy production anyway? One thing that can be said for it--although it's not exactly a compliment--is that it demands the total attention of the listener. It doesn't work as background music or as an accompaniment to other activities. I listened to it while driving one time and ended up with a slight headache. I don't mind being challenged by music at times, but listening to "Distortion" is a little bit too much like work.
Be forewarned I guess to all Magnetic Fields fans...this is basically traditional MF songs amped up with a heavy dose of feedback/noise ala The Jesus & Mary Chain. Some might not like it, I think it's a welcome change for the dude - although there are alot of bands playing this style right now, which is fine by me! See Raveonettes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, A Place To Bury Strangers, Ceremony, Vandelles, Crystal Stilts, Vivian Girls, Manhattan Love Suicides, Glasvegas, etc.
The songs might get a bit repetitive but that doesn't really bother me. The standout songs are: California Girls (amazing!), Drive on Driver, Too Drunk To Dream, etc.
Overall: don't expect this too sound like any other Magnetic Fields record. It's just a really noisy version of MF. If you can't handle that, you might want to stay away. I love it!
Listening to this album, I find the complex, feedback-laden, permanent wave sound, oddly compelling. The intricate harmonies and clever lyrics make for a great listen.