Friday, June 24, 2011

Mercury Rev's "Deserter's Songs"

Being a 20th century guy, I remain obsessed with albums like Pet Sounds, Odessey and Oracle, and The Village Green Preservation Society -- records that seemed to exist in their own worlds. As some scribe (coulda been Gary Giddins, but I haven't had my coffee yet) wrote in relation to jazz, one's perception of music's "golden age" is largely a function of when one first came on board. It's instructive, then -- particularly for one as seasoned and mature as your humble chronicler o' events -- to be reminded that there has, in fact, been music of similar stature produced in later years.

I had my coat pulled in this direction by a late-night virtual chinwag with Transient Songs/Indian Casino Records honcho John Frum, wherein we got on the subject of Mercury Rev's 1998 magnum opus Deserter's Songs, which recently received the inevitable double-disc deluxe edition treatment on the occasion of the band's 20th anniversary.

Mercury Rev's a band inextricably linked in the public mind with the more successful Flaming Lips. Their producer, David Fridmann, has also worked with the Lips, while Rev frontguy Jonathan Donahue moonlighted as their second guitarist for a time, as well as possessing the same sort of high, reedy singing voice as Wayne Coyne. Mercury Rev's been a far less cohesive unit over time, though. Since the band coalesced around the State University of New York at Buffalo, where pioneering avant-garde muso Tony Conrad was their mentor, their trajectory has been disrupted by episodes of interpersonal acrimony that include the departure of their original lead singer, a reported airline ban resulting from an in-flight altercation between two band members, and Fridmann's using their major label advance to send his mother on an island vacation. (On Deserter's Songs' leadoff track "Holes," Donahue sings, "Bands, those funny little plans, that never work quite right," and you get the feeling he knows whereof he speaks.)

While Roger McGuinn used to talk about the Byrds' music being influenced by the sound of jet engines, the early Mercury Rev albums -- Yerself is Steam and Boces, the latter named after the New York State vocational training program my mother wanted me to attend to learn auto mechanics when she thought I was going to drop out of high school -- really do sound that way; man, those records were _shrill_. It was music to match the lysergic chaos of the Lips' In A Priest Driven Ambulance, to which Donahue had contributed.

With Deserter's Songs, Mercury Rev's sound and lyrical vision became suffused with the same kind of human warmth that the Lips were adopting around the same time on The Soft Bulletin. Influence or coincidence? _You_ decide! It's a lushly orchestrated set of songs, with the eerily ethereal tones of a bowed saw -- kind of like a theremin, but more organic -- as one of its sonic signatures. There are musical quotes -- perhaps inadverent -- from Brahms' "Lullabye" (in "Endlessly") and "All the Young Dudes" (in "Opus 40"), while "Goddess On A Hiway" hits more like a sea chantey than a road song.

Their printed lyrics are kind of impenetrable, as they employ a stylized vernacular style in the manner of Captain Beefheart's "Orange Claw Hammer," but the real story on this shiny silver disc is in its instrumental arrangements, which the band tacitly acknowledged when they released a remixed version sans vocals earlier this year. Indeed, four of the album's twelve songs were vocal-free to begin with: "I Collect Coins," which hits like dimly-recalled late 19th century parlor music; "The Happy End (The Drunk Room)," which overlays a skirling gypsy melody on a slightly out-of-kilter ostinato; the soothing, atmospheric ambience of "Pick Up If You're There," which follows the album's soaring emotional climax, "The Funny Bird;" and the untitled, unlisted twelfth track, a pastiche of Varese-via-Zappa that undercuts the putative finale "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp" to close the album on a quizzical note.

Like the Zombies circa Odessey and Oracle, Mercury Rev intended to break up after cutting Deserter's Songs, a decision which they reconsidered when the album catapulted them to unexpected success in Europe. While they've continued to record and tour since then, it remains their pinnacle.


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