Mercury Rev’s newest album, Deserter’s Songs, may be titled like a collection of Civil War laments, but it’s an almost giddy fairy tale. Its affection for the nation’s popular heritage complements its perpetual wonderment: Mercury Rev was once a melodic psych band with a flutist that dealt in quirky pop songs and unending pharmaceutical jamming; now it’s a more sophisticated fabricator of traditional cures.
Mercury Rev emerged from the University of Buffalo in the late ’80s, built around the rumbling low voice of David Baker. The group recorded a few soundtracks for nature films by night at SUNY-Fredonia’s student studio facility with bassist Dave Fridmann at the helm, never really intending to become a touring live act. After guitarist and sometime singer Jonathan Donahue worked his way from tour manager to onstage member of the Flaming Lips, that more established Oklahoma-based psych-pop outfit took the group under its wing. The Rev honed its sound during recorded jams when the hungover Lips had failed to show up in the studio.
Suddenly, however, the Rev’s independently released single “Car Wash Hair” exploded in the U.K. The band’s visionary, idiosyncratic debut album, Yerself Is Steam (1991), was acclaimed and canonized as a new psychedelic masterstroke; its freaky influence reverberates to this day. The band was soon plying its harmonic, effect-drenched rock alongside the six-string space cadets of the early ’90sRide, Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine. Baker’s off-kilter warbling and Donahue’s folk-pop-influenced ditties, executed by an explosive and flowing rock band, combined to make the Rev an irresistible experience.
But the band apparently couldn’t stand being on tour with itself, or sometimes even agree on a set list. Onstage fighting served only to enhance the group’s enigmatic status. (Today, the group has a completely new touring lineup filling in for drummer Jimy Chambers, flutist Suzanne Thorpe, and bassist Fridmann.) After Boces (1993), their rifts widened, and Baker left the dysfunctional outfit to make an unremarkable rock record, World, under the name of Shady.
After a series of EPs, the Rev resurfaced with the overlooked album See You on the Other Side, with Donahue as the band’s new frontman. Thorpe’s flute endured as the band’s melodic secret weapon. Other Side was schizophrenic, further massaging the group’s tripped-out rock side but also presenting the Rev as controlled and orchestrated, like a massive Rube Goldberg instrument spinning in space, putting forth fantastic sound. The group had obviously moved beyond frittering its capital in the noodling of the 20-minute “Very Sleepy Rivers” to more progressive, multilayered structures on “Empire State (Son House in Excelsis)” and “Young Man’s Stride”songs that are free of cloudy confusion. Harps, woodwinds, organs, and more shaded Other Side; and beneath its effects pedals and cymbal crashes, when drunken mumblings ran out, there were warm feelings left over, revealing another dimension of the Rev. “Everlasting Arm” was the band’s most far-flung and risky experiment; it aspired to be timeless and epic and sounded nearly like a score to a never-released Hollywood children’s film. In the context of the rest of Other Side, it was only an exploration. Unfortunately, after touring on the record, the band split up, financially strapped and otherwise dissipated. Guitarist Grasshopper retreated to a monastery to straighten out.
In Deserter’s Songs, the Rev continues its unearthing of Americana. Donahue and Grasshopper obviously share a deep love of popular standards, vaudeville, and Tin Pan Alley tunes, the kind found only on dusty 78s. The sentiments and nostalgic images cast between noise bursts and saxophone runs on Other Side are set on Deserter’s Songs in orchestrated, natural spaces and brought to the forefront.
The opening trio of “Holes,” “Tonite It Shows,” and “Endlessly” introduces the sophisticated, generous Mercury Rev of today. “Holes,” pensive and lushly rendered, offers a revealing glimpse of bands as “those funny little plans, that never work quite right.” The song is like a boldly colored soundtrack suggesting a new phase of retro, in which Cole Porter, puffing cigarettes, and Broadway romance are in vogue. For all their instrumentation, the tunes on Deserter’s Songs are tightly structured, with warbling eerie bowed saws, B-3 organs, Wurlitzers, flute, French horns, and whatnot, always returning to Donahue’s vocal lines for guidance. His small, vulnerable voice, which in the past often sank into the guitarscape, unexpectedly works much of the time with these newly fashioned antiques. As Deserter’s Songs plays on, it’s clear that his faltering timbres aren’t as warm as you might hope, but they are completed by stranger sounds. His singing will never be as charming as the melodies that contain it.
A few members of the Band, Catskills neighbors of the Rev, appear on Deserter’s Songs, lending more roots cred and expanding the instrumental palette on some tracks. Elsewhere, the group remains instinctively psychedelic, taking us on a road trip in “Goddess on a Hiway” and back to space for “The Funny Bird.” “Goddess” gets its naturalism from piano; “The Funny Bird,” on the other hand, is a kooky excursion with a quivering vocal that sounds like Neil Young drowning. Grasshopper’s guitar wash controls most of the airspace, but it still winds up sounding like symphonic mania. “I Collect Coins” is a brief theme, suitable for a film set in a bird’s nest, wire-recorded long ago.
The feelings and the sounds are something familiar and American that wants to be loved. It’s another record crafted to a higher standard than a fickle pop radio market understands. But Mercury Rev is a group that dedicated converts have believed in perhaps more than they believe in rock itself. Those converts must certainly be pleased that the band has made a noble, uncalculated return. The Rev are perpetual outsiders, not potential icons in the making”mountain fuck-ups” by their own admission. But Donahue and Co. are also trying to make songs for everybody: His bowed saw is not meant to be avant-garde but to build on popular themes. Deserter’s Song is a revelation in that the folks in the band are coming from the Dark Side of the Moon and trying to break into the great American songbook. Honestly, even the faithful didn’t know they had it in ’em.CP
Mercury Rev plays the Black Cat April 20 with Jason Falkner.