California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day

Joe Shearer

Courtesy Standing Rock Cultural Arts

Credit: Ron Soltys

The Magnetic Fields


Released by Nonesuch

Stater rating (out of five): *** & 1/2

There are some albums that would fare better if released in a different season. For instance, it wasn’t easy listening to AFI’s Decemberunderground in June 2006. Songs such as “Love Like Winter” feel somewhat out of place when you’re cruising along with the windows rolled down on a hot, sunny day.

Likewise, the Magnetic Fields’ latest and aptly titled album, Distortion — in all of its reverb-filled glory — is something to be heard in the spring or summer whilst falling asleep at sundown with the bedroom window open. Get my point? Placement is key to fully appreciate certain styles of music.

Having said all that, it’d be unfair to critique a record based on the time it was released. Does anyone know what month of 1967 the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds? Still, it couldn’t have hurt to wait a couple months on this one.

But anyways, on to the music.

Distortion is a collision of surf, new wave and ambient dream rock, kicking off with the Ventures-esque, almost-instrumental “Three Way.”

“To what is that referring?” you might ask. It might be an innocent reference on any other album, but this one. Lead vocals are split between Stephin Merritt and Shirley Simms throughout the rest of the songs. Any concept of gender or innocence is lost in the distortion and guitar feedback that encompasses every song.

Stylistically, Distortion falls somewhere in between My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, though not quite as noisy and uncompromising as the latter. However, unlike those two essential indie endeavors, this doesn’t really add anything new to the noise-pop genre.

But don’t let that mislead you. There are definitely some standout – and often hilarious – tracks within, like the anti-fun-in-the-sun “California Girls,” which serves as a nice contrast to the Beach Boys’ song of the same title. In a superb catty anthem, Simms sings,

“I will stand behind their backs with my brand new battle ax. I hate California girls.”

“Too Drunk to Dream” also has an amusing intro verse in which Merritt lays out the benefits of being “shitfaced” over sober.

At times, Merritt’s monotone, new-wave vocals are a bit bland, but the music always prevails. The songs all mesh together and create more of an atmosphere than a focus on individual songs, and so, it’s easy to get lost in the warm fuzz of the screeching guitars and booming ’80s-sounding drums. Has it been done before? Yeah, but Distortion does what it does well, and it doesn’t hold back.

Contact all reporter Joe Shearer at [email protected].