Distortion (Nonesuch)

By The Magnetic Fields

Sometimes Stephin Merritt's stunts work and sometimes they don't. The three-disc 69 Love Songs set rose well above its origins as a cycle of genre exercises, but the songs on i, the titles of which all started with the letter "i," felt forced and stilted. Too often they're conceits that Merritt cares about more than anyone else possibly could. The good news for Distortion is that the gimmick implied by the album title isn't really a gimmick at all; it's just a framework for Merritt's production and arrangement. The songs here are vintage Merritt: wry, effacing ("Sober, you're old and ugly/Shitfaced, who needs a mirror," he sings on "Too Drunk to Dream"), impeccably constructed, and still offer plenty of evidence for anyone who wants to compare him to Noël Coward. But they're delivered through the haze of Merritt's pronounced fascination with the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy, with big electric guitars at the forefront and everything shrouded in thick, distorted amplification. It's a welcome detour from Merritt's arch cabaret act; the pleasures provided by the garage-rock production and bright melodies of "California Girls," "Till the Bitter End" (both sung by long-time Magnetic Fields collaborator Shirley Simms), "Zombie Boy," and the opening instrumental "Three-Way" may be simple and straightforward, but they're substantial.