Friday, April 10, 2015

If I'm Not in the Band Doesn't Mean I'm Square

Band of the Month time - this month, I think, it's time for Mercury Rev. I name dropped them quite a bit last month - I'm not sure how much direct link there is between Mercury Rev and TV on the Radio, but I can see the continuity in my affection for the two bands. I discovered Mercury Rev about the turn of the millennium - maybe with All is Dream, maybe before, I don't know. I remember reading about them, probably in Mojo, back around the end of 2001 - about the time I was discovering Krautrock, Japanese Noise (Boredoms, Acid Mothers Temple), real prog (Van Der Graf Generator, Soft Machine) - they sounded intriguing, I got a couple records, and immediately became a fan. I imagine I got All is Dream and Yerself is Steam together - close to it anyway - those are very different records, but I adored both. I certainly listened to both records rather obsessively for a while... a fact to be reflected in our song list, I imagine... They were, in that period (first couple years of the millennium), just about my favorite band. They make a good token of what I was listening to - which is, admittedly, almost everything - the 00s I was listening to music regularly, and I had money, so I bought everything that struck my fancy - and listened to most of it! on CD! whole records! what a strange time! But they spanned a lot of styles - the noisy oddness of their early records to the lush song craft of their later ones - all of which I liked. Acid Mothers to classic Scott Walker to the Decembrists - Mercury Rev manages to touch most of it. That breadth, that mix of tunage and noise (with sense of humor), is what reminds me of them in TVOTR - that is the connection...

I loved both sides of them from the beginning, and still do. I was addicted to All is Dream - a gorgeous record, pretty, sophisticated songs, clever words ("caught like a fleeting thought stuck inside of Leonard Cohen's mind"), and bracketed by two of the most glorious orchestral rock songs on record. But I was in awe of Yerself is Steam. Those early records, I have to admit, probably come closer to hitting my sweet spot that anything else around at the time - they play like a mashup of Pere Ubu and Pink Floyd, performed by Faust or Amon Duul - wanking guitars, horns and strings and noise, shifting tempos and styles, squawking roar chasing melodic passages chasing mumbled weirdness - what's not to love? The Pere Ubu influence is hard to miss - Dave Baker has a lot of David Thomas in him, and more than one of their songs proceeds like Sentimental Journey bumping into Syd Barrett's poppier numbers. Which isn't far from the way Baker's vocals clash with Jonathan Donahue's - their voices contrast the way the parts of the songs contrast - the way their appearances clash, in things like the Chasing a Bee film... They are all over the place in a way that is just thrilling.

Once Baker left, the pop/melodic/orchestral side took over - even the music hall/dixieland influences (Meth of a Rockette's Kick or Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp) disappeared over time. (Was that a function of Suzanne Thorpe's departure? A lot of the off kilter complexity of their music came from her - the flute cutting against the squall, and so on...) Leaving them still fantastic, but maybe a bit more one dimensional. But they still make such good songs - what can I say against them? They have become craftsmen, and very fine ones - the production is superb, and songs are constructed with such richness, the instruments and sounds blended, interacting. Hercules stands as the perfection of this, I imagine, the way it builds, instruments slipping into the mix, accumulating, to the release of the guitar solo - and then quietly dissipating into the night - yes. That's the Pink Floyd influence, brought to perfection - probably no accident that I renewed my old love for the Floyd about the same time I started listening to Mercury Rev.

So that is that. And a top 10 Songs:

1. Hercules
2. Chasing a Bee
3. Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp - utterly joyful piece of music, this is, horns and guitars and keyboards and flute chasing each other - great stuff...
4. The Dark is Rising
5. Empire State (Son House in Excelsis)
6. Meth of a Rockette's Kick
7. Syring Mouth
8. Secret for a Song
9. Car Wash Hair
10. Something for Joey

And Video? We have to start with Film - they started as a band to make music for films (like Can! speaking of Krautrock...) - and those films are as cool, strange, beautiful as the songs. Here is Chasing a Bee, as epic on film as on record:

Here they are live in their early, abrasive days - Syringe Mouth, Baker's anti-charisma on full display, and Donahue and Grasshopper making a dreadful noise:

And here's a reminder that even in the early days the pretty songs were there - here, doing Snowstorm and Carwash Hair with Dean and Britta.

And later - another video, this for Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp, an altogether different kind of semi surrealism:

The Dark is Rising, live on Jools Holland:

And a Secret for a Song, also on Jools:

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