The Art of Noise

Posted on 28 Feb 2008 at 3:39pm
By Gilbert Garcia – Pop Music Critic

Magnetic Fields’ latest delivers melancholy lyrics with a raw edge


Merritt Badge: Queer frontman Stephin Merritt, second from left, radically alters Magnetic Fields’ chamber-pop sound.

There’s no mistaking a Stephin Merritt tune. Whether recorded by The Gothic Archies, The Magnetic Fields, The 6ths, or any of the other queer tunesmith’s AKAs, Merritt’s dry take on love, obsession, and adoration is seldom imitated and never topped.

A prolific songwriter who has recorded everything from piano-and-cello ballads to Asian influenced showtunes, Merritt’s lyrical flair has proven able to cut through just about any filter.


The Magnetic Fields "Distortion" Nonesuch

Almost as if to test this notion, Merritt and his Magnetic Fields have now released their eighth album, "Distortion." A record that delivers a whole lot of what its title promises, this latest effort hides a charming and occasionally uproarious record behind a sometimes impenetrable wall of noise.

Referencing the seminal post-punk record "Psychocandy," Merritt says his goal with "Distortion" was to sound "more Jesus and Mary Chain than Jesus and Mary Chain."

To this degree, "Distortion" succeeds.

Track lengths all hover around the pop standard three-minute mark, while droning feedback and copious echoes fill out a standard rock lineup of drums, bass and guitar. Songs are unpretentiously arranged and performed with little adornment aside from the wail of the amps. In spite of this cacophonous presentation, "Distortion" clearly remains a Magnetic Fields record.

Guest vocalist Shirley Simms pins the group’s classic misanthropy when she sneers, "I hate California Girls" on the standout track "California Girls." The rollicking "Too Drunk to Dream" is another high point a fun, almost comical track in spite of its depressed and alcoholic narrator.

Other enjoyable numbers include the instrumental surf-rock opener "Three-Way," the country-tinged anthem "Drive On Driver" and the morbidly romantic "Zombie Boy."

"Distortion" isn’t the first time The Magnetic Fields have recorded this type of fuzzed-out romanticism. Early albums, particularly the 1994 record "Holiday" and the 1999 opus "69 Love Songs" also featured the same raw production and clanging sound. But given that the group’s most recent work was the sweet and almost wholly acoustic "I," "Distortion" does mark a drastic turnaround for Merritt and company.

Fans will disagree about whether they prefer the electric or acoustic versions of Merritt’s musical visions. And with an upcoming tour said to be strictly sans feedback, Magnetic Fields junkies will have a chance to hear these same numbers without their noisy and often obtrusive accompaniment. What they’ll find, however, just as you can if you can get past the echoing wail of "Distortion," is yet another set of Merritt classics: at once tragic, comic, twisted and tender.


DISCO JUSTICE
Their bombastic sound borders on the biblically epic and generously borrows from Daft Punk. But French electro duo Justice (Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay), never gives the listener the feeling that they’re listening to something pirated or unoriginal.

From their latest disc "Cross," (Ed Banger/Vice) the track "Genesis" gets all Old Testament on our bouncing booties, as if the idea is to dance while dodging lightning bolts. "Let There Be Light" continues both the "high holy" theme with thunderous beats and "house of worship" keyboards. The real blessing arrives in the form of "D.A.N.C.E.," which is reminiscent of ABC’s 25-year-old masterpiece "The Lexicon of Love."

The psychotic "Stress," with its vintage disco riff, could indeed cause palpitations.

On Tuesday, Justice performs for the first time in Dallas. Labelmate DJ Mehdi opens.
Gregg Shapiro

Palladium Ballroom, 1135 S Lamar St. March 4 at 7:30 p.m. $22. 214-373-8000.



This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 29, 2008

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