Comprised of ex-Flaming Lips member Jonathan Donahue (guitars, vocals), co-lead singer David Baker, Sean Mackowiak, a.k.a. "Grasshopper" (guitars, clarinet), Suzanne Thorpe (flute), Dave Fridmann (bass plus he's become something of a legendary producer), and Jimy Chambers (drums), Mercury Rev’s debut is that rare creation: completely and intoxicatingly original. Sounding like a gonzo psychedelic rock outfit from outer space, the band balances hallucinatory quieter moments with blissfully dissonant freakouts, achieving a sheets of sound cacophony that can be both exhilarating and ear-splittingly annoying (thankfully far more the former than the latter). Though it’s hard to keep track of exactly what’s going on at all times, or to make out much of the strange vocals (Baker delivers the deeper "oddball" almost talk-sing vocals whereas Donahue is higher pitched and is more apt to actually sing, not too unlike former bandmate Wayne Coyne), what with delicate flutes and pianos appearing amidst the droning noises, at their best ("Chasing A Bee," "Coney Island Cyclone," "Frittering") Mercury Rev are capable of making truly thrilling and majestic music. Of course, such bold experimentation makes for somewhat inconsistent results, as the band sometimes drifts along aimlessly before settling into their next (better) idea. Heck, sometimes it sounds like multiple songs are going on at the same time, but even the lesser songs have moments of beauty, which can fade out almost as soon as they appear. Most of these seven epic-scale songs (plus one pointlessly obnoxious but thankfully short segue) can be rambling and formless, but they're always strange, exciting, fascinating, and wildly offbeat. The first song, "Chasing A Bee" (7:12), shows off the band's two singers and has some lovely flute along with massive walls of feedback-fueled guitars. The song is oddly catchy and charming despite all the odd noises flying at you from all over the place, and the more modest second song, "Syringe Mouth" (4:05), is another good one due to its aggressive stabbing riffs, more contrasting normal/weird vocals, and some infectious "yeah!" vocals. "Coney Island Cyclone" is the album's shortest actual song (2:38) and features nice melodic guitars along with huge blasts of noise that are also surprisingly melodic, plus I'm a sucker for those disarmingly cute "hey babe" vocal hooks. "Blue and Black" is a mellower Baker showcase with lovely piano and strings that's oddly endearing (yes everything about this album is odd), while "Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell t' th' Center of Yer Heart" (7:42) is a terrible song title (yes even their song titles are odd) but another good song on which the drums lead the way and the overall sound is both symphonic and massive if also a bit headache inducing. My favorite song here is the inutterably sad yet absolutely superb epic "Frittering" (8:48), whose slowly churning melody builds to an inexorable power. Quite simply, this is one of my favorite songs ever, from its distant megaphone-like vocals, church-y organ, and yet more ear-splittingly loud yet easily discernible, wonderful melodies. Finally, the overly long "Very Sleepy Rivers" (12:16), supposedly about a serial killer, is another atmospheric slow builder with at-times annoying, overly repetitive vocals; this one is more a jam than an actual song, though it does have a spacey trance-like groove going for it. Still, a much better finale on most copies of the album is the hidden bonus track, the Dean Wareham assisted "Car Wash Hair" (6:44), another high quality epic with lovely acoustic guitars, soaring and/or distorted electric guitars, low-key vocals, plus more fine flute and hooky trumpets, all of which adds up to a song with an undeniable, blissful quality. All in all, this wonderfully trippy, totally wacked out "noise pop" album is a great example of why the early '90s alternative boom just RULED.
Boces (Beggars Banquet Records ‘93) Rating: B+
Mercury Rev's second album is another utterly unique creation with moments of transcendent beauty along with some indulgent meandering that results in too many lulls, particularly on the album's second half. More often than not, however, the band hits their mark with a chaotic mix that throws together gorgeous flute, swirling guitar noises, piano, french horns, trombones (there are more horns in general on this album), and airily chanted vocals (which are more low-key this time out, often whispered in fact, which is fitting given that the music is mellower). The overall effect sometimes results in truly majestic music, as on the ten plus minute opener “Meth Of A Rockette’s Kick,” which ends all too quickly and which alone is worth the price of admission here (like "Frittering" it's one of my favorite songs of the '90s). The song begins with delicate strings and woodwinds before cute “bop bop bop” backing vocals join in. The main vocals are bizarre (naturally) and difficult to decipher, but then again it’s the wash of majestic sounds that really matter. The first guitar explosion comes at 1:45 but things soon settle down again. A lone trumpet cries out; I think that’s a trumpet, anyway. The weird voices kick in again, and now the song is discernibly building to something bigger. The hooky “make it connect” chorus all but demands you to sing along, the drums take it up another notch, and then it’s wailing, distorted guitar solo time; damn I love that part! At near the 5-minute mark the massive sound gets ear-splittingly loud, but I still can’t stop humming those blissful “bop bop bops” buzzing about in the background. At around the 6 1/2 minute mark the song mellows out again, but by then I’m drained, anyway. Finally, soon all sorts of carnival-esque noises come in, ultimately taking this brilliant song to a satisfyingly joyous conclusion. Also, damn it if I know what they’re saying, but I love those childish Sly & the Family Stone-styled backing voices there at the end as well. And though this song is a bit of a mess, with seemingly unrelated noises flying at you from all over the place, ultimately it’s a gloriously uplifting mess! Naturally the rest of the album can't hope to compete, but there are other highlights as well, and the band’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach is always intriguing even if the highly experimental end results are again erratic. Actually, I find this album to be less cohesive and more frustrating than Yourself Is Steam, which had a stronger, thicker overall sound too. That comparison out of the way, I really like much of this album as well, in particular "Bronx Cheer," which delivers loud but melodic dreampop, "Downs Are Feminine Balloons," a lovely number carried by its delicate flute and guitar playing, not to mention quirky lyrics like "if there's one thing I can't stand, it's up," and "Something For Joey," which delivers more loud and dissonant yet extremely tuneful pop. Granted, Mercury Rev can come across as a somewhat formless collective on tracks like “Trickle Down,” but this one is still interesting and rocking, as is the hard-driving "Hi-Speed Boats," while "Boys Peel Out" is pretty even if its airy melody is isn't exactly substantial. The near 11-minute "Snorry Mouth" has pop hooks and a delectably singable chorus, but long periods of inactivity also make the song much longer than it needed to be. Ending with a whimper, the 48 second segue "Continuous Drunks and Blunders" simply makes me scratch my head and wonder "why?", while "Girlfren" is a terrible finale that adds absolutely nothing to the album. Still, given their late placement on the album you can charitably consider these last two as "bonus tracks," and besides, taking the good with the bad is part of the deal when dealing with this band, whose schizophrenic personality makes them both fascinating and frustrating. But the band has real personality and is one of a kind (never more so than on their early albums), so even though Boces is inconsistent songwriting-wise and is lyrically obtuse, Mercury Rev are well worth indulging because at their best the band’s extremely colorful, otherworldly concoctions deliver truly mind-boggling vistas of sound.
See You On The Other Side (Beggars Banquet Records ’95) Rating: B
With David Baker's strange vocals having been sent packing, Mercury Rev are decidedly more "normal" outfit, even if they're still pretty weird compared to most bands. This oft-forgotten album is a transitional release that features even more flutes/saxophones/brass and less layered distortion-blasting guitars, as the band on the whole are less noisy and chaotic as they started moving towards the more dreamy, ethereal sound of Deserter's Songs. Although this album is more consistent and is devoid of the obvious filler that plagued Boces, neither does its best songs take my breath away as previously, though as per the last two albums this one starts with an impressive (if not quite as impressive) epic in the groove-based, piano pounding "Empire State (Son House in Excelsis)." "Young Man's Stride," a fairly straightforward loud rocker, is fairly ho-hum (Baker's more charismatic vocals may have helped here), but the pretty, poppy, summery flute-led "Sudden Ray Of Hope" (aside: are Mercury Rev the best "flute in a rock band" since Jethro Tull? darn if I can think of another!) is much better and is another highlight. "Everlasting Arm" dreamily floats by pleasantly but without really latching on, and that's the problem with much of this album on the whole. Still, "Racing The Tide," though overly repetitive (again like much of the album), is another (mellow yet epic) highlight whose soaring guitar solo probably provides my favorite moment on the album. This song segues nicely into "Close Encounters Of The Third Grade," a more up-tempo dance track with female lead vocals (chants and/or coos are more like it) that's also overly repetitive and insubstantial yet easily likeable. The band then gets more jazzy on a pair of dreamy mellow tracks that close out the album, "A Kiss From an Old Flame" and "Peaceful Night," which again though enjoyable aren’t especially memorable. I mean, you may not have liked all of their earlier stuff, but it certainly did stand out, and the band's increasingly arranged (some would say "overproduced") and lush output is more apt to work as background music, but without providing the (admittedly inconsistent) thrills of yesteryear. On the whole, I enjoy listening to this rather short (39 minutes) album but rarely listen to it ahead of the other albums reviewed on this page, as the middle ground it occupies isn't as singularly satisfying as either their earlier or (immediately) later styles.
Deserter's Songs (V2 Records '98) Rating: A+
Wow, this almost sounds like a different band than the one who recorded their first two albums, not unlike how The Soft Bulletin sounds unlike early Flaming Lips albums. The comparison is inevitable, after all producer Dave Fridmann is such an integral part of both groups, but who influenced who and which you prefer is beside the point to me; both The Soft Bulletin and Deserter's Songs (which it should be noted came out first) are undeniable '90s masterpieces, as was Yerself Is Steam too come to think of it but in a completely different way. Dreamy, lush, ethereal, sad, beautiful, orchestral, symphonic, majestic - these are but some appropriate adjectives for this album, which casts a magical spell from the get go. Sure, I could complain that it's a bit frontloaded in terms of obvious highlights, that it lacks variety and the "what the fuck?" excitement of their early records, and that the three short instrumental tracks are less substantial than the surrounding vocal songs. However, this would be the height of nitpicking, for above all else this is a mood album that never lets me down even when a particular song is less than spectacular. Even so, several of these songs are spectacular, starting with the first song "Holes," which exudes a wide-eyed sense of mystery and wonder. "Tonite It Shows" is slower but boy is it lush and lovely, and "Endlessly" is utterly wonderful in the way that it borrows from "Silent Night" and makes a case (along with Neutral Milk Hotel) for 1998 being the "year of the sawed bow" (that instrument was also used to terrific effect on "Holes"). These are epic songs at more manageable lengths than the norm for Mercury Rev, as the album on the whole clocks in at a pretty much perfect 45 minutes. "Opus 40" is another outstanding should've been smash hit, with poetic lyrics (Donahue really hits a peak as a lyricist and singer on this album), tuneful keyboards, and those wonderfully airy "ah ha" vocals, while the Grasshopper sung "Hudson Line" (featuring The Band's Garth Hudson on sax, whereas Levon Helm had drummed on "Opus 40") is more jammy (despite being less than 3 minutes long) but it's still a really good and quite tuneful song, with standout performances on sax (Garth's still got it), guitar (some rare loud outbursts as this is the band's mellowest album to date), and keyboards. "Goddess On a Hiway" is all about its big poppy chorus, plus I love the way its sad lyrics are matched to joyous, life-affirming music, "The Funny Bird" casts a seductive spell with its swirling atmospherics, and "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp" provides a light, groovy finale. Again, the shorter instrumentals are more mood pieces, but these too are enticing in their own ways and enhance the overall experience. Deserter's Songs, which features an absurd amount of seamlessly integrated instruments (quite a few played by session musicians), is an astoundng accomplishment, as the band fully establish their more mature new style and immediately prove themselves to be masters at it. The primary problem with this album is simply that they set the bar so high they'll probably never top it.
All Is Dream (V2 Records '01) Rating: B+
This was another very good album but it suffers somewhat from "inferior sequel syndrome," as it's stylistically similar but lacks the sense of newness of Deserter's Songs, which had more memorable individual songs as well. That much-made comparison out of the way, I'll say that if you liked (or if you're like me, loved) Deserter's Songs then you should like this one as well (much like how Boces was a very good album that inevitably failed to measure up to Yerself Is Steam). On the whole, this album of densely layered orchestral pop is the band's dreamiest to date, but it's also darker than Deserter's Songs, which is fitting I suppose for an album that was released on September 11, 2001. Long gone is the experimental, noisy acid rock of yesteryear, in its place is cinematic, soundtrack-y mood music that works extremely well as lovely background music but which isn't always completely engaging when listened to attentively. I suppose that's a fancy way of saying that it can be a bit boring, and I should also point out that Donahue's vocals are something of an acquired taste (I probably should've pointed this out much earlier actually), not unlike other high-pitched dudes like Wayne Coyne and Neil Young. At this point, only Donahue, Grasshopper, and Fridmann (studio albums only) were left from the original lineup (Jeff Mercel adds drums and piano), but it's not like the band sounds stripped down or anything, far from it as the band's sound is more sumptuously layered and strings-saturated than ever. "The Dark Is Rising" starts the album with a pretty, symphonic highlight, and "Tides Of The Moon" is more moody and mysterious but is another notable number. Donahue's vocals on "Chains" can be a bit annoying, but the song has a good wistful melody and memorable big beats, while the epic-scale (7:10) "Lincoln's Eyes" builds and then recedes slowly but nicely and is especially elevated by the swirling atmosperics in its mid-section. "Nite and Fog" and "Little Rhymes" are more commercial sounding mid-album standouts, whereas "A Drop In Time" is more playful and whimsical, perhaps a bit too much so. "You're My Queen" is a short but enjoyable rocker that builds impressively if insubstantially, "Spiders and Flies" is a fairly straightforward piano ballad that's pretty good but isn't a personal favorite, and "Hercules" ends the album with another long 7+ minute track that takes a while to get going but climaxes with a truly epic guitar solo. But really, this aptly titled album to me is more about is dreamlike overall mood than its individual songs, which is part of the problem as Deserter's Songs had a wonderfully addictive overall ambiance as well as terrific, easily discernible individual songs. That said, taken on its own this was a fine follow up.
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