Mercury Rev are an American six-piece whose stunning debut album "Yerself Is Steam" rightly became Select's album of the month on release. The best, if laziest, way to describe their music is as a cross between prime Pink Floyd and Pavement: the former's inventive, spaced-out rock married (not by arrangement) to a spiky sense of tunefulness. They've been accused of making great music also by accident, and also of being solely influenced by the orchestral passage on the Beatles' "A Day In The Life": there's truth in both, but there's much more to Mercury Rev than that.
"Boces" is their second album proper, pointedly named after an American school for 'difficult' children: it's not so much a follow-up, more a continuation of the experiment begun on the debut album. The opener, "Meth Of A Rockette's Kick", for example, seems to take the melodic ideas expressed on "Yerself"'s first track, "Chasing A Bee", and twist them into new, even more contorted shapes. In the same song we get harps, wind chimes, a flute, a deranged brass section fresh out of "Trout Mask Replica" and a chorus of kiddies that sound like descendants of the Bulgarian female choirs that always turn up on Kate Bush albums. Strange? Yes, but wonderful and compelling too, the album's, and the band's, finest achievement.
Not that the next nine tracks disappoint. "Trickle Down", "Hi-Speed Boats" and "Bronx Cheer" are fine, energetic stabs at something or other, thrilling while being listened to if unmemorable afterwards. The single (don't expect to see it on "The Chart Show" though...) "Something For Joey" is better, with a wonderful shimmering flute line; "Snorry Mouth" starts off as almost as a ballad before crashing through a chorus or two and then ending with a few minutes of grumbling low frequency oscillation and chimes. More accessible, and innovative, is the clearly jazz-influenced "Boys Peel Out", which, like the rest of the album, offers little in the way of tangible lyrical insights apart from the assertion that "Back before the war/Everything was sugar free". Yeah, right.
The only times when they come seriously unstuck are on the last two tracks: "Continuous Drunks And Blunders" is a rather predictable rehash of the debut's "Continuous Trucks And Thunder", and "Girlfren" consists of an unappealing Billie Holliday parody vocal over an electric piano loop, but ten out of ten for trying, at least.
Judging by the photos of rather quaint olde electronic test equipment on the back cover (and the music within!), the band seem to appreciate the need for experimentation. In fact, the new single features new, retitled versions of "Trickle Down" and "Boys Peel Out", taken to acoustic and dub scat (!) extremes respectively. If you're interested in something a little different, I'd recommend "Boces" whole-heartedly.
SPIRITUALIZED/MERCURY REV/DR PHIBES AND THE HOUSE OF WAX EQUATIONS Main Debating Hall, Manchester University, 1/11/93
A novel night out this, a kind of alternative package tour featuring Liverpool (I think) types Dr. Phibes etc etc, the sublime American band Mercury Rev, and Spiritualized, who regard releasing a 3-track EP as sufficient reason to plug their lethargic space rock in student unions up and down the land.
The tickets said "Doors 7pm", so in we walked at 7:10 to find Mercury Rev already onstage and in ski hats, crashing through "Something For Joey" apparently oblivious to the lack of either darkness or an audience. Only when we were thrown out did it occur to us that we'd just witnessed a soundcheck. Ho hum.
Some hours later we were let in legitimately, and after what seemed an eternity or two of The Irresistible Force, allegedly 'The country's leading ambient DJ' (so ambient he didn't actually appear to be there), Dr Phibes etc. etc. turned up. They're quite good, in odious comparison terms they're The Boo Radleys play the Ozric Tentacles songbook. A shame that their light show consisted solely of two one-bar electric fires.
Mercury Rev have a shambolic live reputation, musicians often leaving the stage mid-song to see what their cacophony sounds like from the audience's point of view, but tonight they must have been well on-form. Despite starting with "Very Sleepy Rivers" - their longest and possible worstest song...but hell, who cares? - they were superb. Utilising back projections of suitably bulbous American cars and television 'snow', they played awesome deconstructions of too few of their songs: "Syringe Mouth", "Something For Joey", "Chasing A Bee", the unbelievable "Meth Of A Rockette's Kick" and "Boys Peel Out"...and that was all...only a 45 minute set. What the hordes of Spiritualized fans made of the intentionally stodgy mix and singer David Baker's (looking worryingly like Danny's brother) space cadet antics I wouldn't like to speculate.
And so to the headliners. On record Spiritualized are passable enough, a bit like listening to Primal Scream's "Higher Than The Sun" for an hour, but live they were a total anti-climax. Playing only two songs from the "Lazer Guided Melodies" album (and not the best two, either!) didn't help matters, and it wasn't until the last song that things started getting energetic. The light show was good, and no doubt their fans loved it, but 'twas not for me. Still, the Rev more than compensated!
MERCURY REV See You On The Other Side (Beggars Banquet)
Mercury Rev used to craft kaleidoscopic skyscrapers in a world where others merely wrote songs and made records. Having kicked out professional big bloke and singer David Baker for being too weird, the omens did not look promising, especially after DBs Boo Radleys-assisted debut as Shady, which welded psychedelia and country and western in a very pleasant manner indeed. Bereft of his talent, the Rev seemed destined for diminishing returns in the land of long instrumentals.
Amazingly, thats exactly what hasnt happened. Equally incredibly, theyve gone cuddly: "See You On The Other Side" is littered with wide-eyed wonder at life, the universe and everything after, and scampers like an infant, especially throughout the fairy story and Sally Army band collision that formed last years single, "Everlasting Arm". "Sudden Ray Of Hope" epitomises their new sound: "Theres a sudden ray of hope/In every can of coke", they gurgle without the slightest hint of irony or cynicism. The lengthy neo-prog of "Chasing The Tide", a distant cousin of "Yerself Is Steam"s "Frittering", perhaps (itself traceable to "Meddle"-era Pink Floyd), suddenly takes a wrong turn halfway through and finds itself in the middle of a Mardi Gras parade. Things happen that never in a million years would you expect to hear on a Mercury Rev album.
Although still their least wonderful album, its predecessors "Yerself Is Steam" and "Boces" containing, in my humble opinion, some of the best music made by anybody anywhere ever, "See You On The Other Side" snatches victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat in a seductive and beguiling fashion. Only two caveats: the picture disc vinyl neglects to include trivial little details such as track titles, and nagging doubts remain about what sort of album you could create by grafting the best bits of this onto the highlights from Shadys "World" debut. But the Rev are still firmly in the land of the relevant, and for that we should rejoice.
MERCURY REV Deserters Song (V2)
Time for a history lesson. Back in the early years of the decade Mercury Rev were a sextet from Buffalo, New York whose music could lazily but accurately be described as Pavement meets Pink Floyd: they had the gibbering, edge-of-madness insanity of the former (and, when Syd was around, the latter, come to think of it) and mashed it up with a Floydian desire for, like, really big lightshows and really long guitar solos. They ascended on an almost unfeasibly steep upward trajectory of excellence through two stunning albums ("Yerself Is Steam" and its more ornate but no less powerful successor "Boces", tellingly named after a school for difficult children) before booting singer David Baker out of the band, on the slightly hypocritical premise that he was too weird. Baker went on to make an album under the name Shady, assisted by various stray Boo Radleys, and hasnt been heard from since. The Rev, meanwhile, knocked together the twinkling loveliness of "See You On The Other Side", an album that, somewhat improbably, suggested the Velvets soundtracking "Sesame Street". During the touring grind that followed (supporting Pavement, of all people, around Britain), they imploded, and that, save the Grasshopper solo album reviewed above, was that.
"Deserters Songs" is so much not the same cher obowlies as has gone before that it sounds like the work of a different band. Which, in a way, it is, because the only familiar names gracing the sparse sleevenotes are those of bassist Dave Fridmann, vocalist/guitarist Jonathan Donahue and the ever-present Grasshopper. What "Deserters Song" apparently represents is a return to the grand tradition of 20th Century songwriting, a plot on the leyline that connects back through the likes of Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson to Cole Porter and farther: to dredge up Gram Parsons much-abused term just one more time, Mercury Rev are now playing true Cosmic American Music.
What does Cosmic American Music sound like, then, and is it any good? To answer the first question, try and imagine The Boo Radleys playing songs from Walt Disneys animated films (I mean old Walt Disney films, of course, none of this Elton John/"Lion King"-type noise!). And to answer the second question, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band (another outfit whove had a pretty definitive bash at Cosmic American Music, come to think of it) play on "Deserters Songs", and how many bad albums have you bought with them on? Exactly.
Jonathan Donohue sings with Neil Youngs little-boy-lost naivety, but he also has the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a small child in his voice as well; and the words hes singing flit madly between nursery-rhyme whimsy, sci-fi madness and gorgeous expressions of true, bursting-out-all-over love. (The one quotable quote that it seems every reviewer picks up on is from the track "Holes": "Bands, those funny little plans/That never work quite right"...aint it so.) Musically it sounds as if every mellotron in the Western world attended the sessions, but Donohues musings are cosseted by expansive and expensive-sounding string arrangements, brass, heck, even a bowed saw on occasion. All of this is a million miles away from the old-model Revs brand of effects pedal overdrive, but although "Deserters Song" is undoubtedly a sweet-toothed album it never tumbles all the way into sickliness. And theres a smattering of frankly bizarre instrumentals ("I Collect Coins", "The Happy End (The Drunk Room)", "Pick Up If Youre There" and an untitled coda) that prevent the listener from experiencing too easy a ride.
Some commentators have staked "Deserters Songs" as the album of the year, but, fabulous as it undoubtedly is, Im not among them. For me it doesnt beat the Sparklehorse album raved about below, and its sabotaged by an abysmal vinyl pressing that heads should roll for at the offices of their new record company (the Branson-tastic V2). (And its the only record I own that has the hated Compact Disc Digital Audio logo on the cover...m-m-m-makes me maaad!!) I suspect that a lot of the praise heaped upon it has come from listeners new to the band - to a long term casualty like meself "Deserters Songs" is just another incredible Mercury Rev album, just like (although also totally different to) the kind theyve been making for years.
MERCURY REV Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp (V2)
I'm far too old to have any lingering, sustaining interest in what goes on in the hit parade these days, but every now and then, around once a year, something happens that's so astonishing and outside the normal sphere of things that you just have to sit up and take notice. Last year it was Cornershop and their frankly amazing, and richly deserved, number one success with "Brimful Of Asha". This year it's the possibly even more astounding top 40 placement of Mercury Rev.
Mercury Rev used to be a not very marketable combination of Pink Floyd and Pavement. These days they're a scarcely more marketable but even more wonderful amalgam of The Boo Radleys and The Band. Quite why the nation has suddenly taken Mercury Rev to their collective CD racks is something of a mystery - "Deserter's Songs" is a terrific album, to be sure, and definitely the best of last year (concentrated listening over the last few weeks has seen it edge ahead of Sparklehorse's almost, but not quite, equally incredible "Good Morning Spider") in my humble opinion, but Mercury Rev in the singles chart?! Surely we never dared hope.
The tune in question is the magnificent closing number from "Deserter's Songs", and on this 12" it comes dressed as a Chemical Brothers remix which flutters gaily through six minutes of colourful carnival before even the merest hint of the original arrives (not as mind-blowing as some of their Manics and Spiritualized remake/remodels but a credible effort nonetheless) and an edited version, which lops off the strange musique concrete coda of the album take and leaves three minutes of gorgeous, radio-friendly pop tones. Finally there's an instrumental version of "Endlessly" - not exactly a burden to create, but thanks all the same.
Anyone who saw the too-brief excerpts from the Rev's recent London Astoria gig aired on Channel 4's "NME Premier Live Shows" (when they were supported by the mighty Shack, of all people, in full-on Love-covering glory) must surely know what I mean when I say that this band are the past, the present and the future of rock and roll: their music plucks the heartstrings like The Blue Nile or Big Star at their bleakest and best, they write melodies that Lennon and McCartney at their peak couldn't even dream of, their lyrics have the compact, unfolding beauty of Raymond Carver's short stories and the black-and-white romance of "Brief Encounter". They're surely the most perfect band in the world today, and if your tastes wander outside the mainstream to any degree you owe it to your ears to give them a hearing.
MERCURY REV Goddess On A Hiway (V2)
MERCURY REV Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp (V2)
Two more essential CD single purchases to feed the Mercury Rev completist in me. The main tracks you should already know and hold dear, both coming from what was undoubtedly the finest album of last year, the continually amazing "Deserters Songs". Both pack two extra tracks of interest to the hardened Rev obsessive: "Goddess On A Highway" adds the frankly bizarre jazz instrumental "Ragtag" (think Ball, Barber and Bilk covering the Super Furry Animals songbook) and a version of the old chestnut "I Only Have Eyes For You", featuring High Llama Sean OHagan. Maybe its something of an anachronism, being taped by the BBC in 1995 when Mercury Rev were a very different band, but a welcome one nevertheless.
The CD2 of the chart-storming "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp" is rather more interesting, being blessed with two live tracks recorded for Los Angeles 89.9 KCRW "Morning Becomes Eclectic" (and indeed it does!) show. Theres a heavenly seven minute take on the divine "Holes", one of the new-model Revs most potent heart-flutterers, and a version of John Lennons "Isolation" that suits Jonathan Donohoes little-Neil-Young-lost vocals perfectly. All of which adds fuel to the theory that Mercury Rev (along with fellow fellows The Flaming Lips) are one of the bands that matter most at the moment: cherish them for it.
MERCURY REV Opus 40 (V2)
More twisted wonderment from the seemingly inexhaustible well of genius that is the latest model Mercury Rev. "Opus 40" is the third single to be lifted from last years divine "Deserters Songs" album, and, spread over two CDs and a 7", is accompanied by a smattering of predictably brilliant extra tracks. The vinyl arrives backed with a cover of Neil Youngs "Motion Pictures", CD1 rolls in with BBC and GLR radio session versions respectively of Bob Dylans "He Was A Friend Of Mine" and Bacharach and Davids "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head", the covering of which seems to have become shorthand slang for troubled genius - if the version here cant quite compete with the Manic Street Preachers in the emotional suckerpunch stakes the Rev have a trump card in the form of Jonathan Donohoes bewildered, little-boy-lost vocals.
However, the real magic resides over on CD2, home to an astonishing cover of Nikki Suddens "Silver Street". As with the Neil Young tune mentioned above, the Rev have obscurity on their side here (apart from his contribution to the Neil Young tribute album "The Bridge" I know nothing about the works of Mr Sudden) but such is the aching beauty and purity of this acoustic lament youd gladly forgive them such blatant one-upmanship - who could have predicted a few years ago that Mercury Rev would evolve into such heart-stopping balladeers? CD2 is filled out with a live version of their already-heavenly "Tonite It Shows", recorded for German radio. I was moved to the brink of tears by their version of this from the NME-sponsored London Astoria shows earlier this year, and this latest take doesnt disappoint. Just how do they retain all the spirituality of such lavishly-orchestrated show tunery with just drums, keys and wires for guidance? Most of whats on these singles ascends to the realm of the astonishing, pushing the envelope of what mere music and words can do out into uncharted realms. How much better can they possibly get?!
MERCURY REV Goddess On A Hiway (V2)
More single-shaped wonderment from the ever-astounding Mercury Rev. Re-released to celebrate the shifting of 100,000 copies of its fabulous parent album "Deserter's Songs", "Goddess On A Hiway" quietly sneaked up to number 26 in the torpid top 40. Scattered across two CDs and a 7" you'll find unremarkable radio session autopilot ambles through Lou Reed's "Caroline Says Pt. II" and John Lennon's "I Don't Want To Be A Soldier", a far more inspired take on "Car Wash Hair", recorded earlier this year at the Camber Sands Bowlie Weekender, which lurches into The Allman Brothers' "Jessica" at one point, "I Dreamed", one of the Rev's infrequent collaborations with poet Robert Creely, and a 12 minute live version of "Very Sleepy Rivers" taped on 2 November 1993, which claims to be from the band's final performance with original vocalist David Baker (the day after I saw them supporting Spiritualized in Manchester, strangely enough. Happy days!). Oh, and there's also the original video for the title track, for the suitably computer-equipped. So, although unlike previous Rev single releases, it may not be a product born of complete artistic purity, there's at least a smattering of greatness to be found here, and a good deal more wayward eccentricity than they've demonstrated of late. And if it succeeds in propelling "Deserter's Songs" towards another 100,000 happy owners it has my full support.
MERCURY REV All Is Dream (V2)
Let's get the complaints out of the way first. "All Is Dream" demonstrates the slimmest musical advance over its predecessor of any Mercury Rev album yet - all it is (all it is, mark you) is "Deserter's Songs" with the rough edges smoothed off and the curious musique concrete experimentation excised, all lit by a huge, psychedelic, swirling oilwheel. Somebody should have a word with the current occupant of the Rev's drum stool about those Keith Moon tendencies, which threaten to bludgeon the subtlety out of songs where a little more Ringo Starr reserve and threat might be appropriate. The arrangements swerve towards the overblown on more than one occasion, leaving poor Jonathan Donahue - never the most forceful of vocalists - gasping at the gills at the back of the mix. I doubt V2 could successfully press flowers, let alone high quality black vinyl, this particular horrorshow being warped, off-centre and plagued with surface noise. And every now and then, for example "Chains", "All Is Dream" sounds suspiciously dull for a Mercury Rev album.
Now let the other hand have a go. "I dreamed of you on my farm" mewls the little boy lost on opener "The Dark Is Rising", and if someone told you "All Is Dream" was "Harvest" rescripted by Tolkein and Dylan circa '66 you'd believe them. Yes, this is a sanitised Mercury Rev we're dealing with here, but also one that knows how to push the Big Button, something that Super Furry Animals conspicuously fail to do properly during the hour of bluster that claims to be their new album. The aforementioned song is a case in point, full of lush, velveteen cinematic crescendos that would make Baz Luhrmann weep. "Lincoln's Eyes" plays the spooky card that turned over the most memorable moments of "Deserter's Songs", whilst the single "Nite And Fog" is almost a happy pop tune, albeit still as wonkily skewed as everything else in the Rev canon.
But it's over on side two that things really start happening, and getting happy. Here be possibly the most joyous single suite of songs that Mercury Rev have yet been caught in possession of, generally bereft of the rattling serpent scariness and refracted childrens' nightmares that haunt the flip. Lovely, elaborate, meticulously turned, it's hard to swerve the conclusion that Donahue was heavily influenced by the last album by his former band The Flaming Lips: "The Soft Bulletin", remember, took the "Deserter's Songs" template and booted it into a maverick world of cutting edge scientific research and gorgeous melody.
So "All Is Dream" is a deeply satisfying album, but, much like the new Sparklehorse platter, I can't quieten the nagging doubt that maybe it should have been more. Written in the vapour trail of the Rev's closest brush with commercial success yet, it seems to favour the more obviously plotted move over the random, quicksilver flight of wayward brilliance. But these are obviously plotted moves in the game Mercury Rev are playing, which still defies convention to such a degree as to make the majority of what else the entertainment industry churns out pathetically redundant.
MERCURY REV Nite And Fog (V2)
Being the first single to be taken from their lovely, luscious new album "All Is Dream", "Nite And Fog" demonstrates that, as hard as they might strain to parcel up their black hole magic dark psychedelia up into vacuum-sealed, radio friendly packages Mercury Rev just can't avoid being brilliant. Whether "Nite And Fog" is, deep inside its soul, a love song, a horrorshow or a nursery rhyme is irrelevant; just appreciate it for being sublime, gorgeous music, finer than we really deserve.
Strewn about the 7" and two CDs that constitute the myriad versions of this single are a handful of alternate versions of the main feature - a 4-track demo that substitutes the real thing's locomotive rhythm for a swooning cello accompaniment, and a take that features The Paulist Boy Choristers of California, the kind of window-dressing that Mercury Rev's already sumptuously upholstered music doesn't benefit greatly from. Your rock dollar also buys you a demo take of "A Drop In Time", just guitars and voices and as rudimentary as the song could possibly become whilst remaining recognisable, and the new songs "Serpentine" (a thrashy, near big beat thing from 1996, obviously heavily indebted to The Chemical Brothers, with whom Jonathan Donohue had just collaborated on "The Private Psychedelic Reel") and "Cool Waves", an unremarkable few minutes correctly excluded from "All Is Dream". Nothing that challenges great Mercury Rev b-sides of the past (their version of Nikki Sudden's "Silver Street", which backed up one of the "Opus 40" CD singles, might even be the finest of their dozens of finest moments) but plenty of fun for those of us who scrabble after ever last shred of this consistently remarkable band's music.
MERCURY REV The Dark Is Rising (V2)
Under the microscope here is the CD1 guise of Mercury Rev's latest single, which quietly planted them in the top 20 (of the NME's charts, at least) during January's musical dog days. "The Dark Is Rising" is still the same magnificent piece of music it was when it opened the Rev's glorious "All Is Dream" album last summer, all widescreen cinematic crescendos and string scoring, with Jonathan Donahue's little-Neil Young-lost vocals sheltering from the storm in the middle of it all. As if to confirm the suspicion that Mercury Rev are like no other band you know or could even dream of, the extra tracks here include a cover of Chopin's "Nocturne In C# Minor, Opus 27, No.1" (pleasantly tinkly piano music) and a note-perfect reconstruction of Black Sabbath's foggy mountain breakdown "Planet Caravan". Mercury Rev, Chopin and Black Sabbath on the same disc? Not even a Cameron Crowe film soundtrack would dare to be so audacious.
MERCURY REV The Dark Is Rising (V2)
Fifteen years after the fact, Philips' unloved CDV format has finally come of age as the DVD single, a far more imaginative loss-leader than The Man's usual parade of multi-format lifeless packaging. Mercury Rev's first DVD, "The Dark Is Rising", leads off with footage of that marvellous song performed at 2001's Reading Festival: the visual excitement might be limited to observing Jonathan Donahue's antics (alternately gripping his microphone stand and conducting the band during the crashing orchestral crescendos, raising his skinny fists to heaven and flexing his muscles like a tiny Charles Atlas throughout the song's minute-long rainbow-noise finale) and pondering whether the keyboard player has arrived dressed as Flo or Eddie, but any song as heavily pregnant with imagery as this one hardly benefits from distractions.
The remaining two audio-only tracks are both played against a photo gallery, which is a step up from the blank screen that usually accompanies the b-sides of DVD singles. Another random rustle through the Chopin songbook brings "Prelude In E Flat Minor - Opus 48 No.4", which sounds as if it was performed on a wobbly barroom piano, and a live version of "Tides Of The Moon" taped at a Danish gig is as predictably brilliant as you'd expect a live version of "Tides Of The Moon" to be.
In addition, in a production positively bristling with added value by the standards of the format, there are four 30-second bursts of camcorder-quality road footage, taped at soundchecks, gigs, drinking sessions and outside concert venues. It doesn't exactly sate the desires of the committed Mercury Rev scavenger - wouldn't it be nice if it was extracted from some larger future anthology? - but thanks anyway.
MERCURY REV The Dark Is Rising (V2)
More Mercury Rev wonderment in the form of CD2 of their recent single "The Dark Is Rising". Here the spectral, glorious opening track from the "All Is Dream" album is bolstered by the company of a fragile live version of "Spiders And Flies" captured and enraptured in front of a small but appreciative audience, and an even more spindly rendition of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies", which, conversely, in this company serves as a reminder of the scope and ambition of Jonathan Donahue's own songwriting gifts. A marvellous way to while away quarter of an hour, in other words.
MERCURY REV The Essential Mercury Rev: Stillness Breathes 1991-2006 (V2)
Perhaps the first band to suffer from a Dave Fridmann-related critical backlash, their famed former member turned celebrity alternative rock producers sonic sweetening had become kinda tooth-rottingly saccharine by the time of Mercury Revs sixth album, the slightly underwhelming The Secret Migration. Perhaps given undue prominence here, the likes of Diamonds betray a band whose spark has not so much bled as fled, a pleasant enough nursery rhyme popcorn double feature, but not fit to sell a cinema ticket to some of the firepower gathered elsewhere in celebration of a decade and a half of sometimes sporadic Rev activity.
There are essentially two phases to the Mercury Rev story. During the first, helmed by the, uh, mercurial David Baker, they were a sonic blunderbuss, draping their muscular melodies in My Bloody Valentine-style sonic perversions and lysergic psychedelia Pink Floyd meets Pavement, every review called them at the time, in retrospect more of a constricting pigeonhole than the compliment it was often intended as. When he left, to record fleetingly as Shady, the Rev became a vehicle for the fractured pop visions of Fridmann and Jonathan Donahue: think a mindblown Brian Wilson orchestrating the more blissed-out moments of Screamadelica. Fantastic as it was for a while the See You On The Other Side and Deserters Songs albums especially their bold and brave vision gradually became overstuffed and cloying. Itd be churlish to complain too vociferously, though, since this compilation is generously packed out with moments of sublime sonic genius.
Goddess On A Highway, for example, is a work of absolute beauty from the zenith of their reinvention, Jeff Buckleys Last Goodbye rebooted into outer space; from the same Deserters Songs source, Holes offers sad-eyed celestial autobiography (replete with the immortal lines, Bands / Those funny little plans / That never work quite right). Chasing A Bee nutshells the mad, feedback-strafed genius of their first incarnation, reheated with extra pop nous on fab rescued early single Car Wash Hair (And if Im not in a band / Dont mean Im square), and from the same era Frittering is molten slow motion. Heralding their first post-Baker album (See You On The Other Side), Empire State (Son House In Excelsis) models a sunnier, happier, far less dense and complicated sound than before, yet still filled out with one-note Velvets piano and cathedral-sized crescendos, strong, potent but not unpleasant medicine for those reared on their later work. The early Rev sound is brilliantly summarised in four delirious, vertiginous minutes by Something For Joey, the sole selection from their coruscating second album Boces - surely the astounding Meth Of A Rockettes Kick deserved inclusion as well. The first disc closes with Opus 40, a warm-hearted, gentle lyrical pastiche of Bob Dylan circa Blonde On Blonde.
Where CD1 takes a conventional, if chronologically circuitous, route through the discography, the b-sides, radio sessions and collaborations that stock the second disc reveal the band to be cosmic jukebox heroes par excellence. Theres mantric personal politicking both hard (Lennons I Dont Want To Be A Soldier) and soft (Bowies Memory Of A Free Festival), endearingly wobbly crooning (I Only Have Eyes For You) and country hokum (Streets Of Laredo), and the Rev correctly rehabilitate the best song from one of Captain Beefhearts worst albums, Observatory Crest: if it sounds a little flimsy and insubstantial compared to their own music from roundabout the same time (Deserters Songs) its certainly of a piece with it texturally. There are some jagged, twisted verse collaborations with Robert Creeley and Alan Vega and a slightly bizarre remake of James Browns backhanded paean to the sisterhood Its A Mans Mans Mans World, sung by an uncredited female vocalist. Somewhat mystifyingly, Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp, their second highest UK charting single, only scrapes in via its Brothers Chemical remix; its great, of course, but far more a Tom and Ed track than a Mercury Rev original.
Giving the lie to the compilations title, Clamor is a previously unreleased 1987 recording that finds the nascent Rev sounding a lot like contemporaneous Flaming Lips, not a great surprise given how closely the bands careers have shadowed each other. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds becomes slightly workmanlike in the bands hands, but the inspired inclusion of Silver Street soon compensates: long one of my mix tape staples, this gentle, acoustic meander through the Nikki Sudden song is atypical of the Rev, but it might just be their finest moment.
Odd puzzling omission and substitution aside, The Essential Mercury Rev: Stillness Breathes 1991-2006 just about achieves its remit, as well as offering enough unheard material to tempt fans already familiar with the bands albums. Line drawn, maybe their next escapade will recapture and bottle the quicksilver thrill of a band making the impossible possible.
MERCURY REV / CHAMELEONS VOX The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 20 May 2011
Chameleons Vox are a self-tribute to cult 80s Mancunian band The Chameleons, featuring former vocalist Mark Burgess and drummer John Lever. They still sound like prototypical North Western raincoat-clad post-punk – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, of course – like early Echo & The Bunnymen running on late Joy Division riffs. Burgess pours his all into his performance, throwing angsty shapes across the stage, despite a dispiritingly sparse turnout for a support slot at a sold-out show in their hometown. Their performance also underlines that, for all its acoustic excellence, The Bridgewater Hall really isn’t the place to play loud rock music, with Burgess’ vocals mostly submerged beneath churning guitars. As an unbeliever, I found the most entertaining moments to be the liberal quotes from other legendary Manchester bands, for example the verse from The Fall’s “Stepping Out”, or the lines from Joy Division’s “Transmission” and The Fall’s “Rebellious Jukebox” that follow each other in quick succession. Some people adore The Chameleons, though, so I’m happy to accept that the shortcoming is mine rather than the band’s.
The stage is festooned with electric candlelight and swathed in dry ice by the time a seven-piece Mercury Rev take to it, but there’s only one focus of attention for the entirety of their set: the rail-thin, black clad and bearded figure of Jonathan Donahue. Swigging from a bottle of red wine and balancing Ian Anderson-style on one leg, he’s got the looks and demeanour of a cheerfully demented Hugh Laurie. As advertised, the Rev perform one of their many magnum opuses, the “Deserter’s Songs” album, complete but, unusually for such an occasion, they’re not afeard to take liberties with the sacred source text. “Endlessly” acquires some rather thumpy percussion, not entirely to its benefit, and the instrumental scraps “The Happy End (The Drunk Room)” and “Pick Up if You’re There” become fully-fledged, with mixed results. The latter features the evening’s only appearance of the bowed saw, played by Donahue; its unearthly Theremin-like wail would arguably become the record’s signature sound, but the tune itself is needlessly distended into what sounds like a sprawling jam even if it isn’t. “Opus 40”, though, evolves into the kind of mindmelting psychedelic odyssey that reminds that once upon a time the lazy way to describe Mercury Rev’s music was as a cross between Pavement and Pink Floyd. The only song to suffer the same sonic bludgeoning as Chameleons Vox’s set is “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp”, which is predictably euphoric but maybe more swampy than stompy.
They cap the evening with a few delightful surprises, including a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” that seems unlikely but turns out to be a perfect mesh with the spirit of the main feature, and golden oldie “Car Wash Hair”. They swoop and swoon through “The Dark Is Rising”, Donahue flexing his muscles Atlas-style to underscore the lyrics and close with the surprising choice of “Senses On Fire”, a perpetual build that abruptly finishes with no sense of release. Nevertheless, it would be churlish to complain about an evening as entertaining as this one. When I last saw Mercury Rev 18 years previously they were practically a different band, and it was almost, almost, almost worth the wait.
Grasshopper And The Golden Crickets
Spiritualized/Mercury Rev/Dr Phibes And The House Of Wax Equations Main Debating Hall, Manchester University, 1/11/93