Music News

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."

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Ryan Foley