Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Unchained melody

As far as I recall, I'd read about the Jesus and Mary Chain before I'd ever heard them. In fact, in those glory days of the NME, it was possible to become a devoted acolyte of the idea of a band well before a specific note had ever punctured your consciousness. And the idea of the J&MC, it seemed, was noise, with a side-order of chaos. I was particularly taken with the bass player, one Douglas Hart, who was asked why he only had two strings on his instrument: "What's the point of spending money on another two?" he pondered, from between the most rock'n'roll cheekbones ever sculpted.

Of course, when i finally got to hear what lay behind the hype, it wasn't that straightforward. Sure there was noise, and sure there was chaos aplenty, but the Mary Chain were really a pop band in the finest tradition. "The Velvet Underground meets the Beach Boys" was the lazy music-hack shorthand, which rather ignored the fact that there was more than a hint of Beach Boys in the Velvets already. ("The Ramones meet Phil Spector" was presumably rejected because the Ramones had already met Phil Spector for real.) Psychocandy, the J&MC's debut album, was full of feedback and crap drumming, but also of hooks, harmonies (of a sort) and the sort of lonely longing that could have booked the Reid brothers a desk in the Brill Building. The Shangri-Las meet Test Dept, perhaps? Goffin and King meet Suicide? Which is why they were a perfect soundtrack for the climax of Lost in Translation: they were scary and alienating, but with just enough sweetness at the heart to make the experience bearable (like Bill Murray, and Tokyo).

Fast forward not quite a quarter-century, and there's another record that I read about before I hear. The Magnetic Fields' new opus, Distortion, is intended by its creator, Stephin Merritt, to "sound more like the Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain". Which is, undoubtedly, deliciously postmodern, as is only to be expected from a musician for whom the idea is almost as important as the sound (a triple album, each disc containing 23 songs; an album on which all the song titles begin with "I"; and so on until ennui sets in and he decides to retrain as an accountant).

The thing is, once you actually listen to the album, you realise that Merritt's mission statement has to be taken literally. The songs do sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain; but that doesn't mean they are like the Jesus and Mary Chain. He's created walls of J&MC-style feedback and noise from his customary anti-rock instrumentation (cellos and accordions and ukuleles) but the songs themselves are what you'd expect from the Magnetic Fields: winsome, witty ditties of polymorphous rumpy-pumpy. Where a Mary Chain narrator, unlucky in love, might sit in his bedsit, staring at the space on the wall where his Stooges poster once rested, the protagonist in a Magnetic Fields song would take his dog for a walk down Broadway and never stop.

For the first time in a long and distinguished career, Merritt has confused a concept with a gimmick. It's as if he's written and recorded a bunch of songs, then panicked because they lack an over-arching cleverness. Slapping feedback all over them may be a heartfelt tribute to one of the better bands of the 1980s, but it doesn't actually make any sense. The J&MC made noise because they couldn't do anything else: when they became better musicians, their music became progressively less interesting. Merritt is already a more than competent musician: by smudging the edges of his own virtuosity, he's just slumming it.

What he's perpetrated is something akin to foisting a dance remix on a rock band that doesn't really want to dance; or the treacly strings that Phil Spector spewed all over Let It Be; the only difference being that here, the artist has done it to himself. Eventually, of course, the Beatles released Let It Be in a low-carb, 'naked' guise: will Merritt ever have the guts to transcend his own cleverness (as distinct from his musical abilities) and do the same?


Billy said...

I actually like the idea of walls of feedback from a ukulele.

I'm still going to buy this as I like the Mags and adding feedback is a plus in my opinion.

patroclus said...

Ooh, is it time to get Psychocandy out again? I rather think it is.

Thanks for that clip, too. I used to live next to an outpost of North London Poly, but by the time I moved there it had been converted into a Pizza Express and some yuppie flats. Not a gurning two-string Scotsman in sight, let alone a riot of any description. Shame.

Annie said...

"...but with just enough sweetness at the heart to make the experience bearable (like Bill Murray, and Tokyo)"

Good point. Imagine that film set in Cornwall with Jason Donovan.

Tim F said...

I love the Mags too, Billy. I just think this is an unnecessary gimmick.

Even better, Patroclus. Riot in Pizza Express! Police horses dodging the flying doughballs!

Yes, Annie, but Jason in the Scarlett J role.

The Curve said...

"In fact, in those glory days of the NME, it was possible to become a devoted acolyte of the ideaof a band well before a specific note had ever punctured your consciousness."

So true; often the idea of a band is so much more intoxicating than the reality. Examples? Manic Street Preachers (excellent interviews, rubbish albums); The Strokes (21st century Television, in reality Menswear wiht better breeding); when reality lives up to the idea, then you are on to something (Dexy's Midnight Runners, The Blue Nile).

Tim F said...

The Manics have recorded plenty of rubbish albums, but I still think The Holy Bible stands up - easily the equal of In Utero for gouging beauty out of misery. And they were pretty good live as well.

amyonymous said...

okay you probably won't see this because it's on an "old" post. but the day i read this entry of yours, i turned around an hour later and showed Lost in Translation to my english class. so i got to hear J&MC at the end of the movie, just like you said .... and within hours of you saying it! (or rather, me reading it).