There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Magnetic Fields fans will be glad to know that Stephin Merritt is still glum, and his typically depressing lyrical touches are all over Distortion. On “Please Stop Dancing” he trades melancholy lines with Shirley Simms—“Please stop dancing in my eyes/I can’t make it pretty lies”—while “Too Drunk to Dream” includes memorably conflicted lines like, “Sober, you’re a Cro-Magnon/Shitfaced you’re very clever/Sober you should never be/Shitfaced, now and forever.” But those same fans might not be so excited to hear that Distortion, as the title suggests, is drenched in feedback. Nearly every instrument besides the drum kit has been infected by fuzz and dissonance, and the songs are full of reverb, pings, and accidental noise. Merritt placed an amplifier flush with the frame of the piano during recording to get it to vibrate, for example, and even attempted the same technique with an accordion. But somehow all of this high-concept messing around doesn’t translate into an abrasive sound experiment—nor even much of a departure from Merritt’s typical, pop-friendly oeuvre. In fact, the cackles and squeals add a welcome level of friction to the tunes and keep them from drifting into glossy pop dreamscapes; Merritt has often used clean melodies to counterbalance his bleak lyrics, a technique he’s overused over the years, so the change is welcome. Recruiting Simms to sing on most of the tracks was another inspired move. A guest vocalist on the Magnetic Fields’ 1999 three-disc set, 69 Love Songs, she has a radio-friendly, unisex voice that evokes Alex Chilton, so it’s not surprising that songs like “Courtesans” and the triumphant “Drive On Driver” recall Big Star. All that feedback suggests the Jesus and Mary Chain, but mostly the echoes of the Beach Boys are all over Distortion, particularly on the harmonies. Merritt and Simms channeling Brian Wilson is a beautiful thing, even when they’re doing it ironically. “California Girls” is not a cover of the Beach Boys tune but a catty dressing-down of Los Angeles’ young siliconerati: “They breathe coke and they have affairs with each passing rock star/They come on like squares, then get off like squirrels/I hate California girls,” Simms sings. “The Nun’s Litany” is nearly as successful, channeling girl-group-style vocals before a Wall of Sound–style backdrop as she imagines the lamentations of a celibate sister: “I want to be a topless waitress/I want my mother to shed one tear/I’d throw away this old sedate dress/Slip into something a tad more sheer.” (Like every other song on the album, it’s almost exactly three minutes long.) Merritt is often cited as being merely influenced by Wilson and Phil Spector; Distortion suggests that it’s time he be given strong consideration as a pop genius on their level.