Two Albums In One Package From Long Running Rev

The long running outfit known as Mercury Rev (first album, Yerself Is Steam issued 1991 on the UK Mint Films label and 1992 on U.S. Columbia) didn’t take its name from the liquid element. The first album’s back jacket offers a clue: with or without permission, it reproduces the ‘Stereo 35MM’ logo found on cloth-spined Command Classics LPs and that’s fine with me. “Fine”—get it? Fine? It even reproduces the part of the logo that says the recording was on 35MM magnetic tape, but I doubt that album really was. (Hint: those Commands were recorded by the legendary Mercury Records engineer (and mastered by George Piros for that matter).

While the band Mercury Rev took its name from the Mercury Records label, the recordings are not “audiophile” in the traditional sense of the word, but they are most definitely about sound and the manipulation of it to produce worldly and otherworldly effects. That’s been a constant on the band’s almost twenty year’s worth of recordings.

Another constant has been the participation of Dave Fridmann, a name well-known to Flaming Lips fans, among others. Fridmann also produced the superb Low album Drums and Guns reviewed elsewhere on this site, and albums by Mogwai, Elf Power, Sparklehorse and many others, probably better known and appreciated in the alternative rock world than Mercury Rev.

Fridmann’s credit on the first Rev album reads “Bass Explore, Majestic Bellowphone.” On the latest release, filled with steady, cheap drum machine beats and less than steady analog-sounding blips, bleeps and gorgeous, sometimes ice encrusted atmospherics, he produces and shares mixing credits.

The complex, often melodic, deftly constructed sound collages are almost impossible to untangle into primal elements, which has been the band’s game plan from the outset. The shifting, swirling sounds mostly produce an other-worldly effect that’s both modern and electro-retro: part Eno, part Robert Mason (talk about an obscure reference!).

The sonic whole is as ethereal and out of reach as the lyrical theme threading through the songs, which is the fragility of being. “Life is uncertain,” one line in the Ben Gibbard-like “People Are So Unpredictable,” pretty much sums up the lyrical thrust of the album. Other song titles include “Snowflake In a Hot World,” “Runaway Raindrop” and “October Sunshine” in case you needed more backup. “Faraway From Cars” is a plea to find your essence, that “little part of you” that’s far away from war, from cash, from fear, from cars.

The album is packaged with a second LP of gorgeously rendered, atmospheric instrumentals that is recording “audiophile-style.” It’s supposed to be sort of a “bonus,” but depending upon your tastes, you might find it even more spellbinding than Snowflake Midnight. If you’re unfamiliar with this long-running group and you like what you find here, there’s plenty more where this came from, including the aforementioned debut, and especially1998’s Deserter’s Song (V2 63881 27027-1) featuring guests Levon Helm and Garth Hudson.

By the way, I don’t mean to suggest that Mercury Rev (Jonathan Donahue, Sean “Grasshopper” Mackiowiak, Jeff Mercel and Carlos Anthony Molina) copped anything from Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. In fact, do yourself a favor and listen to the sublime “Holes” from Deserter’s Song, which was recorded “audiophile style,” and you’ll hear a song Gibbard must have heard and upon which I suspect Gibbard’s musical foundation may well have been built. The expansive vista of the melodic construct, the lyrics and especially Donahue’s aching, high-pitched vocals can be heard in Gibbard’s work.

On second thought, maybe you should pick up Deserter’s Song first, especially if you’re a Van Dyke Parks fan. The album is almost a Song Cycle sequel.