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What I’m listening to this week: Mercury Rev

May 2, 2009

Deserter’s Songs – 1998

I’m embarrassed to admit that I only recently heard of Mercury Rev.  Not too long ago Will Champion, the drummer for Coldplay, wrote about the influence that MR had on Coldplay as a new band, and that coupled with Mercury Rev’s wildly fascinating bio intrigued me.  Sure enough, I was greatly pleased with my first MR purchase, Deserter’s Songs.

From the ethereal first notes of “Holes”, Jonathan Donahue’s tender, shaky vocals, the wobbling theremin and woeful horns, Deserter’s Songs sets out a magical, other-worldly tone that is the common thread of the album.  “Tonite It Shows” is a complex and bittersweet indie love piece that unfolds smoothly and methodically like a classical dance.  The imaginative, starry lullaby “Endlessly” is dream-like and completely enrapturing.  “Opus 40” and “Hudson Line” are similar in a couple of ways: they’re both bubbly and expressive musical departures, “Opus” sounding like a happy circus, and “Hudson” like the soundtrack to a glorious night in New York.  But moreover, both songs (and really, all of the songs on the album) feature songwriting that almost any lyricist would be jealous of.

If there are conventional structures to be had on Deserter’s Songs, it would be the southern sun-infused “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp” or “Goddess On a Hiway”, if including the lyrics, “And I know it ain’t gonna last/When I see your eyes arrive/They explode like two bugs on glass” can be considered average song material.  Sandwiched between those two tracks are the psychedelic, musically Floyd-esque “The Funny Bird”, and the particularly haunting instrumental “Pick Up If You’re There”.

I would be completely remiss if I didn’t discuss The Flaming Lips right about now.  You can’t listen to Deserter’s Songs for the first time in 2009 and not see the striking resemblances between Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips.  First of all, there’s the voice.  No one ever sounded more Wayne Coyne as Jonathan Donahue does on this album.  The symbiotic relationship between the two bands means it was more likely to happen than not; Donahue at one time was the guitarist for the Lips, and MR bassist Dave Fridmann is probably more well known for producing Flaming Lips albums (and other notables) as he is for being a member of this band.

Secondly though, Deserter’s Songs sounds as beautifully unearthly and celestial as one of the greatest Lips albums, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin.  One could probably make a pretty solid argument that the two were heavily influenced by the inter-connectedness of the bands.  Despite the similarities between the albums, Mercury Rev breathes as much emotion, fragility, and sheer brilliance into Deserter’s Songs as The Flaming Lips do on Bulletin even though they never received the same reception in the States.

Mercury Rev is a highly under-appreciated band who will hopefully get more exposure by having just toured with Coldplay and Deserter’s Songs is a classic that more people should hear.  Get it now!  Now I say!

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