The Magnetic Fields take ‘Distortion’ theme too far

adam.dompierre

The Magnetic Fields have come a long way from their humble indie-pop beginnings in the early ’90s. After peaking with 1999’s classic “69 Love Songs,” Stephin Merritt and company have experimented with everything from dance music to opera.

The band reinvents their sound again on the aptly-named “Distortion,” this time by running everything through a thick layer of, you guessed it, distortion. The results are at times revelatory, but some tracks would be better served with a more straightforward presentation.

Merritt described “Distortion” as trying “to sound more like The Jesus and Mary Chain than The Jesus and Mary Chain.” Unfortunately, that gimmick sometimes gets in the way of the songs themselves.

“California Girls” isn’t a Beach Boys cover, but the melody would fit right in on “Pet Sounds.” Shirley Simms’ reverb-laced vocals cut through distorted guitar lines to deliver catchy choruses about, ironically, hating California girls. While the song isn’t anything groundbreaking, it is especially well-executed.

Other tracks fare similarly well given the distortion treatment. The album’s best melody belongs to “The Nun’s Litany,” which is the most memorable song despite some really contrived lyrics. Merritt toes the line between comedy and tragedy on “Too Drunk to Dream,” which is equal parts light-hearted ode to drunkenness and song of lost love.

Simms’ vocal delivery shines on “Drive On, Driver,” a melancholic ballad that balances personal resiliency against a broken heart. “It’s such a pretty little ring,” she sings, “But it doesn’t mean anything / Drive on.” Each of these songs would work well without distortion, but the added fuzz fits them well.

Other times, the distortion is distracting. “Xavier Says” and “Mr. Mistletoe” are poorly-mixed at best, and the heavy-handed use of distortion and reverb renders them unremarkable.

Coming in at 13 tracks, the theme simply wears out its welcome. Songs like “Till the Bitter End” and “Zombie Boy” seem to crank the noise just to fit the album’s motif — not because it’s good for the song. The effects are less overwhelming for the album closer “Courtesans,” but it’s a strategy the band should’ve used more often throughout the album.

It’s hard to fault a band for taking a chance on a novel idea, and The Magnetic Fields’ impression of artists like The Jesus and Mary Chain does make for a handful of really good songs.

“Distortion” could have been a great EP, but as it is the album runs a little too long and the new sound loses its charm towards the end. It was an interesting experiment, but the band would be better served by playing more to their strengths in the future.