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Mercury Rev

+ {Harmony Rockets} + {Grasshopper And The Golden Crickets}

Somewhat overlooked in their home country (who’d paradoxically prefer Oklahoma cousins The FLAMING LIPS), New York’s Martian-esque MERCURY REV were a cult-act-come-good on British shores where frantic John Peel sessions caught the attention of the odd aficionado. The fact that guitarist Jonathan Donahue was once a fly-by-night FLAMING LIPS space cadet (while Dave Fridmann produced the said combo), drew further confusion in to how the States just seemed to keep the ‘Rev on the fridges; were they not aware MR’s Deserter’s Songs matched The Lips’ The Soft Bulletin on all counts and, more importantly, came about some nine months beforehand. While both blissful classics did not breech the US Top 200, the ‘Lips subsequently sky-rocketed beyond their wildest psychedelic dreams.
Taking their moniker from a sharp rise in temperature rather than any fictional ballet dancer, MERCURY REV formed in Buffalo, NY, around 1988, when concert promoter Donahue (as “Dingus”) put a collective of musicians together to accompany a demo and a 35mm film. But then, after a BUTTHOLE SURFERS gig, the part-time guitar technician hooked up to support act The FLAMING LIPS, who, in turn, invited him to become a fully-fledged member on their “In A Priest Driven Ambulance” set; incidentally produced by Fridmann.
As luck would have it, that almost forgotten demo found its way to the offices of Rough Trade Records, who immediately wanted to sign the band – then Donahue (guitar/vocals), Dave Fridmann (bass), Grasshopper (aka Sean Mackowiak: guitars/clarinets), David Baker (lead vocals), Jimy Chambers (drums) and Suzanne Thorpe (flute). Their early sound, which came about by playing their own soundtrack to nature TV programmes! (almost `Very Sleepy Rivers’ in execution) was certainly deliciously deranged enough for this explanation of their secret history – they reputedly met in a mental home.
Just over two years of rehearsals passed before they finally surfaced with the classic set, YERSELF IS STEAM (1991) {*8/*9}, perhaps the most immaculate marriage of searing psychedelic noise and crystalline pop ever committed to vinyl. The 12-minute `Very Sleepy Rivers’ (like a meeting of BUTTHOLE SURFERS and The VERY THINGS) was a fitting finale to an album that sailed back and forth from the cosmos via the shambolic sounds of `Chasing A Bee’, `Syringe Mouth’, `Blue And Black’ and the coming-down-to-earth of `Coney Island Cyclone’. Almost of heady HAWKWIND-esque proportions, `Sweet Oddysee Of A Cancer Cell T’ Th’ Center Of Yer Heart’, was enough to garnish the album – one side significantly subtitled “Harmony”, the other “Rocket” – with a resounding thumbs-up by the British press. Freaky mixed-up psychedelia, noise, film dialogue and exhilarating experimentation, the set was pursued by the excellent `Car Wash Hair’ (recorded with Dean Wareham of GALAXIE 500), a track convincing commentators of MERCURY REV’s volatile genius.
Squabbling and widely publicised, wildly unpredictable live shows led to break-up rumours, quashed when the band were snapped up by Beggars Banquet (Columbia Records at home). First on their manifesto, was the re-issuing of “Yerself” in double-disc format by the fall on ‘92, adding the bonus-only live set, “Lego My Ego”, and featuring a re-tread of SLY STONE’s `If You Want Me To Stay’ (an earlier single, here only on CD), plus the cosmic 15-minute interpolation of MILES DAVIS’s `Shhh/Peaceful’ segued into `Very Sleepy Rivers’.
Named after a school for wayward kids, sophomore UK Top 50 album, BOCES (1993) {*7}, carried on in their established schizophrenic vein, but all too often it strayed into wanton comatose self-indulgence at the expense of conventional tunes; example the exhausting but crescendo-inducing `Meth Of A Rockette’s Kick’ and `Snorry Mouth’ (both clocking in at 10 minutes apiece). However, when MERCURY REV chose brittle melody over noise-annoys (or a succinct combination of both), tracks such as the PERE UBU-esque `Trickle Down’, the shimmering `Bronx Cheer’ and the punchy `Boys Peel Out’, won the day over flop 45, `Something For Joey’.
The following year, the band’s infamous in-fighting reached a head as the proverbial time-honoured musical differences led to the wayward Baker pursuing a noisier career of his own as SHADY; with members of SWERVEDRIVER, ROLLERSKATE SKINNY, Th’ FAITH HEALERS, SHARKBOY and BOO RADLEYS; there was an album, “World”, released toward the end of ’94; a single, `Narcotic Candy’, was taken from the set with a subsequent single, `Pearls’, coming out a year later.
Although a solitary MERCURY REV single, `Everlasting Arm’, appeared in the summer of ‘94 (featuring ALAN VEGA), it would be another long year before the release of parent set, SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE (1995) {*8}, although by this time the first chapter of the group’s maverick career had already drawn to a close. Marrying a melange of sonic tunes with the odd flute and horn section, messrs Donahue, Grasshopper and Co were offering a modern-day “Pet Sounds” approach to the delirious joy of `Racing The Tide’, the brassy `Close Encounters Of The 3rd Grade’ and the flower-power flow of `Sudden Ray Of Hope’. While critics marvelled over the album’s more accessible but wonderfully eclectic pop-jazz experiments, the aforesaid main players were in the process of completing a one-track debut album, PARALYZED MIND OF THE ARCANGEL VOID (1995) {*6} for their re-vamped side-project, HARMONY ROCKETS. Donahue and Grasshopper roped in The BAND’s Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, while there was room for former CAPTAIN BEEFHEART player, Zoot Rollo Horn. On a separate release, HARMONY ROCKETS covered `I’ve Got A Golden Ticket’ (from “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory) and VANGELIS’s `L’Apocalypse Des Animaux’.
Fast-forward a few years, Donahue and Grasshopper resurrected the MERCURY REV moniker with a complete new cast, namely Adam Snyder (keyboards), brothers Justin Russo (keyboards) and Jason Russo (bass), plus drummer Jeff Mercel, although the subsequent return of Thorpe, Fridmann and Chambers (Snyder was retained), resulted in a more fully-fledged re-formation by early ’98; together they again worked with Hudson and Helm. Yielded, finally, for Virgin’s fledgling V2 imprint (Epic Records in the States), DESERTER’S SONGS (1998) {*9} was widely hailed as thee album of the year as MERCURY REV enjoyed one of the critical rebirths of the decade. Older and wiser, the band had possibly stumbled upon what GRAM PARSONS really meant when he dreamt of his “cosmic American music”, a wistful (in a far-out sort of way) melange of quixotic pop, spacey orchestration and lullaby romanticism quite possibly unlike anything one’d ever heard before. If long-time fans were hoping to ear-lobe the anarchic spark of old they were in for a drastic shock, tracks such as `Holes’, `Goddess On A Hiway’, `Tonite It Shows’, `Opus 40’, `Delta Sun Bottleneck Blues’ and `Endlessly’, meandered to a more mature muse, the latter even incorporating their own heavy-lidded interpretation of traditional carol, “Silent Night”.
A couple of months prior to the album’s release, GRASSHOPPER & HIS GOLDEN CRICKETS (including flautist Thorpe) had taken their own, more off-beat journey into the psychedelic musical galaxy with the album, THE ORBIT OF ETERNAL GRACE (1998) {*6}.
After recovering from the trailblazing glory of Deserter’s Songs, many fans and critics were pondering over what might the group’s next release entail: how were they going to match the previous album? How would they write songs, now that their woe and grief had disappeared thanks to their new found glory? MERCURY REV, however, answered both of these questions on the eve of the release of their fifth album, the epic ALL IS DREAM (2001) {*8}. A kaleidoscope of drifting thoughts, strange orchestral lulls, and dark, uncertain things that crept around in the shadows, the set displayed all of the usual ‘Rev decorations, only with a brooding overtone.
Blacker than their last set, the record opened with the soaring, heart-wrenchingly poignant `The Dark Is Rising’ (an unofficial sequel to `Holes’) – a piano-led wander into Donahue’s subconscious, with aching violins and un-normally high choir voices that sounded like a collaboration between a broken-down NEIL YOUNG and a drunken SCOTT WALKER. Elsewhere on the album, `Drop In Time’, `Tides Of The Moon’ and `Hercules’, were all fine demonstrations by the group that they hadn’t lost any of their musical ambition (especially Fridmann, who was surely becoming the PHIL SPECTOR of the independent movement). If Deserter’s was the soundtrack to a sad children’s Christmas movie, then this one was pitched somewhere between a classic romantic-period drama and a high-tension adventure set in a faraway land.
Three years on, the “Mercurial” New Yorkers released one of their most intimate AOP (Adult Orientated Prog) meditations to date in the shape of UK Top 20 set, THE SECRET MIGRATION (2005) {*6}, once again drawing the ubiquitous FLAMING LIPS comparisons. Somehow, Donahue and Co – including newbie Carlos Anthony Molina – couldn’t match the critical acumen of its mighty predecessors, but in tracks such as `In A Funny Way’ (a UK Top 30 volley), `Across Yer Ocean’, `Diamonds’ and `Black Forest (Lorelei)’, the ‘Rev were still ahead of the game.
Always as interesting as their self-penned releases themselves, fans could look out for certain clues to understand the nuances of Donahue and Co by way of cover versions. Having recently covered CAPTAIN BEEFHEART’s `Observatory Crest’ and MARTY ROBBINS’ `Streets Of Laredo’, one could also scour their back B-side catalogue for:- `Dead Man’ (ALAN VEGA),`Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ (BACHARACH & David), `He Was A Friend Of Mine’ (trad./DYLAN), `Silver Street’ (NIKKI SUDDEN & DAVE KUSWORTH), `Motion Pictures’ + `Philadelphia’ + `Vampire Blues’ (NEIL YOUNG), `I Keep A Close Watch’ (JOHN CALE), `Isolation’ + `I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier’ (JOHN LENNON), `I Only Have Eyes For You’ (The Lettermen), `Afraid’ (NICO), `It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ (JAMES BROWN), `Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ (The BEATLES) and `Memory Of A Free Festival’ (BOWIE).
But was the mid-00s the right juncture for a somewhat risky venture into the business of movie soundtracks. Probably not. Mostly instrumental, the 19-track score from Robinson Savary’s Bye Bye Blackbird flick, renamed HELLO BLACKBIRD (2006) {*6}, had all the dreamy traits of a “proper” MERCURY REV set, only without the yowl vox of frontman Donahue. With the circus as its theme, it was no surprise piano-led opening track, `Blackbird’s Call’, slid aesthetically into a pictorial carousel soundscape – almost beauty defined. Ditto `Waltz For Alice’ and the lengthy `White Birds’. As for the short bursts of clarinet and glockenspiel diversions interspersed all around the album, they were probably too miniscule to sink one’s teeth into critically. The remainder of the album’s quite uplifting at times, eerily haunting at other times; one imagines the ‘Rev listened to several film scores by the prolific DANNY ELFMAN or JACK NITZSCHE before contemplating this move. One can almost reach out and touch each note, played impeccably and orchestra-like. `The Last Of The White Birds (March Funebre)’ (from the pen of Frederyk Chopin), glistened like the sun on a still river bed, while in stark contrast, `The Chimpy Waltz’ was quirky and eccentric in a lighter bombastic kind of way.
Having been holed up in the Catskill Mountains, and coming out on the 10th anniversary of Deserter’s, MERCURY REV had one further contribution to make in swansong set, SNOWFLAKE MIDNIGHT (2008) {*7}. Rich in techno-textures and reverberating pianos, critics compared it to a meeting of RADIOHEAD and UNDERWORLD. Always in the mood to experiment, the minimalistic `Runaway Raindrop’, was the star track here, a shimmering piece of electronica that recalled ENO’s buddies CLUSTER. `Dream Of A Young Girl As A Flower’ and `Snowflake In A Hot World’, displayed Donahue’s trademark cosmic croon, and it’s worth searching for the album’s accompanying limited freebie set, “Strange Attractors”.
A rest-bite from the cutting music world for Messrs Donahue, Grasshopper and Molina, meant that it wasn’t until 2013 – and a return to a studio in London – that MERCURY REV were in motion once again. A rest-bite from the cutting music world for Messrs Donahue, Grasshopper, Molina and Mercel, meant that it wasn’t until 2013 – and a return to a studio in London – that MERCURY REV were in motion once again. A few years down the line, the joyous THE LIGHT IN YOU (2015) {*8} struck a cosmic chord for pastoral pop, returning to the UK Top 40 in the process. Reminiscent of YES’s interstellar piece `And You And I’, the lush `Amelie’ soared to the heavens, while others such as opening salvo `The Queen Of Swans’ soundtracked psychedelia for today’s lovelorn laptop-loader. On a mission to bring sunshine to the windmills of one’s mind, `Emotional Free Fall’, `Central Park East’ and the Motown-esque `Rainy Day Record’, raised the temperature skyward. A million miles from the antiquated assaults of `Car Wash Hair’, the kaleidoscopic themes rest easy on the ear, reprised from time to time on the breezy `Autumn’s In The Air’, the nature-nurturing `Moth Light’, the wigged-out `Sunflower’ and the sentimentally-sprinkled/choir-enhanced piece de resistance, `Are You Ready?’ (a 70s-type hit for time-travellers everywhere).
Not entirely glossing over the languid 3-way space-rock journey that was HARMONY ROCKETS’ long-awaited sophomore set, LACHESIS / CLOTHO / ATROPOS (2018) {*7} – a truly spiritual record that featured special guest: folk/blues finger-picker PETER WALKER (plus credits for Jesse Chandler, Nels Cline, Martin Keith and Steve Shelley), MERCURY REV were back on track the following February.
The ever-enterprising Jonathan and Grasshopper had added the aforesaid Jesse in the meantime, though it was in collaborative picks (all female) that gave BOBBIE GENTRY’S THE DELTA SWEET REVISITED (2019) {*6} its unique musical footprint. If eponymous country star Bobbie had once topped the singles and album charts with her `Ode To Billie Joe’ way back in ’67, her follow-up set “The Delta Sweete” was a stinker in terms of sales figures (#132). However, that did not deter the mercurial Rev’s in their near track-for-track attempt to err… put the record straight; only `Louisiana Man’ was omitted to cater for Gentry’s biggest hitter; here sang by LUCINDA WILLIAMS. Superimposing ladies of the cosmic canyon (from the better-known NORAH JONES, HOPE SANDOVAL, STEREOLAB’s Laetitia Sadier, and SLOWDIVE’s Rachel Goswell, to VASHTI BUNYAN (alongside Kaela Sinclair), MARISSA NADLER and BETH ORTON), only the former triumvirate came up trumps on respective odes: `Okolona River Bottom Band’, `Big Boss Man’ and `Mornin’ Glory’; all ‘n’ all, the dewy mountain antithesis of the schizoid and effervescent “Very Sleepy Rivers”.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/LCS-MCS // rev-up MCS Mar2014-Jun2019

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