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The Magnetic Fields

Distortion (Nonesuch)

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Like UFO-worshiping prog-rockers from the '70s, Stephin Merritt loves concept albums. From 1999's 69 Love Songs (a sprawling three-disc set that chronicled romantic tunes throughout the 20th century) to 2004's I (every song began with the letter "I"), the Magnetic Fields frontman is at his most focused when he's tying things together thematically. Merritt says that Distortion was inspired by the Jesus & Mary Chain's blurry Psychocandy. In other words, it's a CD filled with songs that have one thing in common: They all pile on the distortion.

It's also a warm and heavy set of fuzzy love songs about getting "Too Drunk to Dream" and hating on "California Girls." But at times, it's hard to figure out just what Merritt is going on about (lyrical obscurity remains one of the perils of playing shoegaze). It's especially frustrating here, considering Merritt's standing as one of modern music's most proficient songwriters.

At least Merritt's usual bleak viewpoint is undercut by Shirley Simms (a 69 Love Songs alum), who takes over lead vocals on some of Distortion's sunnier cuts. Still, Merritt's flair for tightly worded sarcasm and irony permeates songs like "Mr. Mistletoe," where his rich baritone stretches through the slow, hazy jangle of guitars to expose the heart of it all.

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