Magnetic Fields mines several black musical genres to create its latest: white noise
Sasha Frere-Jones, Jessica Hopper, and pitchfork-toting denizens of the blogosphere: You'll be satisfied to know Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt experienced a road-to-Damascus type conversion. His iPod was shattered, and all pop sins — endorsing the catchiness of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," under-representing black artists in his numerous "artist playlist" exercises, and boldly proclaiming, "I think my records could be listened to by the Ku Klux Klan!" — were wiped clean.
Behold, Distortion — an album that mines the many rich veins of American black music and artfully signifies the holy transformation of this former "rockist cracker" (Frere-Jones' words). Tapping into everything from roots music to modern-day hip-hop, the steel wool-wrapped Distortion is "white noise" in name only, filching from enough black genres to declaw his critics. Some highlights:
"Three-Way": A murky, moody genuflection to Motown, with its buried piano lines and a unique thrust from the rhythm section. The title, blithely shouted during the song's choruses, also pays homage to Motown's two most prized trios: the Supremes and the songwriting axis of Holland-Dozier-Holland.
"Old Fools": Here Merritt parrots early hip-hop efforts (Guru's Baldhead Slick and da Click; Yukmouth's Thug Lord: The New Testament), lyrically executing all those who haven't genuinely earned their indie-pop cred ("Old fools that believe that they can dance and sing").
"Xavier Says": Connecting the dots, "Xavier Says" features a cymbal-less tribal stomp that evokes Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker, who honed her craft by playing to Bo Diddley records until the wee hours of the morning.
"Please Stop Dancing": Merritt's cheeky reaction to Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, as he lightheartedly purports that the "Ellingtonian," swirling masterpiece — once billed by Impulse! as "ethnic folk-dance music" — is too melodically overwhelming for the senses.
"Drive On, Driver": With its themes of dolor and flight, "Drive On, Driver" mimics black field recordings compiled by folklorist Alan Lomax (Austin Coleman's possessed and raucous "Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah)," a ring-shout using a West African dance pattern), and even 1970s-era soul (Tami Lynn's "I'm Gonna Run Away From You").
"Too Drunk to Dream": With humorous yet tragic couplets like "Sober, nobody wants you/Shitfaced, they're all undressing," this Merritt paean to alcohol also tips a flask to Tommy Johnson, an important individual in the development of Delta blues and a devoted imbiber himself (cocktails of choice: Sterno-denatured alcohol, shoe polish strained through bread), who once penned sotted ditties like "Canned Heat Blues."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.