Sunday, January 24, 2010

Some thoughts on Mercury Rev's "Peel Sessions" (2009) and their "all-inclusive Americana"

I wrote the majority of this text in one piece, trying to get rid of a variety of thoughts I had been carrying around for a while. Having written this review, I noticed that it mostly represents a way of thinking about music that I feel isn't what I'm doing, or interested in doing, these days, presumably indicating that these changes in perception of music, aesthetics, whatever have gone hand in hand with new musical discoveries while some old favourites are still connected to and associated with other forms of thinking – in other words, maybe there's a delay in applying more recent ideas and influences to music I have known for many years (or – which would pose a bigger problem – maybe certain ideas I have about music now are not quite as easily applicable there). To me, this may actually end up being the most important aspect to take with me from this particular review, but, having added some further ideas, I would still like to post the entire text as 1. it deals with music that I consider amazing but also underlistened and underdiscussed and 2. maybe getting rid of these thoughts, superficial as I may consider some of them to be, will make room or produce valuable starting points for new ones. That said, in recent months, the idea of All Is Dream being a continuation of the Young/Nitzsche aesthetic is one that has been very important to my understanding of certain aspects I might be looking for or like connecting to, so it may be a good idea for me to dig deeper there.

This review is an attempt at discussing Mercury Rev's recent Peel Sessions release while trying to figure out what has made and kept this band's music so interesting to me throughout the years, and/or how the band, or better: my idea of the band, works. Mercury Rev have been a constant within my listening practices for years now: while reading through message boards may sometimes lead to the impression that the group's different incarnations tend to appeal to different persons, I keep finding different things to like in all the stylistic shifts that have taken place over the years, caused both by actual line-up changes (of which there have been many) and the members' obvious desire to move on. Somewhat intriguingly, even though the Mercury Rev of, say, 2001's polished, carefully arranged All Is Dream may sound nothing like the Mercury Rev of 1991's slightly ramshackle, delightfully noisy Yerself Is Steam (and neither really sounds like the Mercury Rev of 2008's labyrinthine, glossy Snowflake Midnight), retrospective comparison of the seven "main" albums the band has released so far appears to suggest that every single one already bore the next one's seeds, as unexpected as some of the moves may have been at the time.

And thus, Yerself Is Steam begat its David Baker-dominated technicolour sibling Boces, whose slightly jazzy, mellower Jonathan Donahue-sung moments (especially "Boys Peel Out") begat the bizarre Gershwin/Bernstein/Disney/Wilson vibes of 1995's See You On The Other Side; that singular but often overlooked album's quasi-hauntological approach led to what ended up being the almost-defunct band's unexpected breakthrough (commercially and in terms of media coverage), the mellow and masterfully produced Deserter's Songs. With bassist Dave Fridmann becoming one of the "indie world's" most sought-after producers and sometime-sibling band The Flaming Lips enjoying similar and soon even greater exposure, the Rev expanded Deserter's Songs' psychedelic Band-isms for the opulent widescale Americana of All Is Dream whose song structures and mystic atmospherics already pointed towards the far less organic sounding indie pop of The Secret Migration. 2008's Snowflake Midnight, then, might have seen the band's most profound changes since the mid-90s, taking The Secret Migration's aspirations towards a more electronics-based sound and combining it with quite unpredictable (and, indeed, often computer-generated) structures. Throughout all this, the Rev kept a fascination with vastly different influences, incorporating, embodying and adapting alternate strata of American musics of the 20th century.

This isn't to say that (remaining founding members) Jonathan Donahue, Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak and their peers' work can be reduced to some form of full-on musical Americanism, whatever that may be; on the particularly obvious field of direct references, which is where such an idea would presumably originate, various John Lennon covers and a fascination with Le Petit Prince, among other things, already suggest otherwise. However, the way some of these influences – from the ubiquitous Neil Young to Steve Reich, from Miles Davis to Sonic Youth, from the Dream Syndicate/VU/Suicide NY drone connections to Dylan and The Band) have been digested, reproduced, altered and emulated in a wide variety of evocative ways (I've never been to the Catskill Mountains but I feel I have!) points towards the band's mastery of decidedly "American" coding in their music. So, doesn't this type of history sound good, easy and obvious? Maybe too much so? So it's all the better if a collection like The Peel Sessions comes along that gives one an opportunity to reflect on this seemingly linear band history, puts it into question, maybe confirms it in one way and shakes it into oblivion in another.


The Peel Sessions collects the band's five appearances on John Peel's even posthumously ubiquitous BBC shows, one session for each of the albums Mercury Rev released between their inception and 2001. The album's encompassing of this particular timespan added to my interest in its release – while I certainly enjoy and, in many ways, admire the two most recent albums, it's the first five that I consider particularly exciting, as different as they may be from each other. Many of the songs have appeared on other releases, often on singles, the band's best of/rarities double-CD The Essential Mercury Rev: Stillness Breathes 1991-2006 and, most notably, the glorious Lego My Ego rarities compilation, available only with some versions of Yerself Is Steam, that contained all four songs from that era's session. Due to The Peel Sessions' chronological approach, these four songs open disc 1, this time appearing without the bizarre intros and outros that made listening to Lego My Ego a particularly refreshing experience. Still, these recordings, all of them versions of songs found on the original album, are thoroughly strong, with "Frittering" and "Coney Island Cyclone" sounding somewhat more mellow and laid-back than their sometimes beautifully disorienting and chaotic album counterparts. They sound quite a bit closer to mid-to-late nineties Rev, too. "Frittering" probably offers both the session's strongest and most disappointing moments: the addition of Suzanne Thorpe's ever-welcome flute makes the song remarkably pretty, but unfortunately, for whatever reason, it fades out during the still cavernous instrumental middle part. David Baker finally adds his volatile and always exhilarating presence to the third and fourth songs, doing backing vocals on "Syringe Mouth" and a fronting the band for a musically faithful but lyrically entirely bizarre (and funny) reading of expansive album opener "Chasing A Bee", here turned into "Chasing A Girl (Inside A Car") as it was called on Lego My Ego, with most of the lyrics having been replaced by somewhat similar sounding ones. Early on already, the upstate New York band did a fantastic job at taking alternative/psychedelic rock idioms and displacing them, making them seem "noisy" even at moments when there wasn't all that much noise around through means like production disorienting and immersive in its impurity or Baker's unusual vocals; at the same time, a recording like "Coney Island Cyclone" here shows a familiarity not just with more straightforward modes but also with a use of atmosphere making these musics tend towards something touching beyond clichĂ© and mimicry, working what might otherwise be mere signifiers of classic popular music even from way before the sixties into contemporary psychedelia without ever giving the impression of really looking back.

The jump to the Boces era doesn't offer any particular surprises, sound-wise, to those familiar with the album itself, but the song choice and the treatment of some of these pieces is quite intriguing. "Trickle Down" had always felt like the Rev's most (diffusely) "urban" moment to me with its harsh stop-start moments and Baker's often spoken lyrics, probably a simplistic assessment or contextualisation of the song, but even this realisation didn't keep it from being a bit of an oddity within their discography. Here, it benefits from a thundering intro similar to what sounds like the attack of a few dozen theremins on Boces' "Snorry Mouth". Suddenly, "Trickle Down", otherwise hardly changed (most obviously, it misses Baker's F-bombs near the end; this was a BBC session after all) seems much more typical an example of the early Rev's exuberant noisy, psychedelic pop. The least expected change, however, comes with "Downs Are Feminine Balloons": what is probably the most beautifully mellow, pastoral song released during the Baker years is played twice as fast here, maybe not too far removed from a cheerful, childish Sonic Youth, or what The Flaming Lips were doing at the time; the foggy, abstract middle section is still in there, thankfully, making this a particularly unique and exciting recording. Donahue's only slightly augmented "Boys Peel Out" closes the session on a laid-back, strangely nostalgic note, its lyrics about "your momma"'s reminiscences of times "back before the war" heading into a dreamy aether, the whole song seemingly pointing forward to the See You On The Other Side phase.

Not too long after, David Baker left – or: was thrown out of – the group, presumably in an attempt to end grave tensions within it; he went on to record a joyously colourful record of strangely bubble gum-ish psych-pop under the moniker Shady and, after some additional production work, apparently quit making music. While it is hard to tell his exact role within the band's early years – I assume Baker was less involved with songwriting but had an important influence on the band's overall approach in sound, visuals, lyrical content... – his departure resulted in what might be the most obvious shifts in the band's history, leaving behind a truly unique legacy while at the same time paving the way for something very different that would be sorely missed as well. Here's hoping that new music of his will turn up sooner or later.

1995 must have been a very strange year for Mercury Rev: most famously, they released See You On The Other Side, a truly idiosyncratic album that sometimes sounds like it was beamed in from a pre-WWII world but in some ways pre-echoes the droning but melodic haziness and weirdness of, say, some of Animal Collective's more abstract takes on pop structures (especially circa Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished). Despite being a personal favourite of the band members', the album failed to make much of a (commercial) impact and still tends to be forgotten in message board discussions and the like. While it feels like a transitional record in many ways, dividing the noisy psych-pop of old from the opulently arranged Americana of the late nineties, it stands perfectly well on its own and, in spite of its references to musics from throughout the twentieth century and its vague similarities to recent psychedelic pop experimenters, still sounds like nothing else I have encountered, especially on seemingly shapeless, hazy pop oddities like "Everlasting Arm", a song that could be considered classicist in some ways but sounded like the strangest piece of music when I heard it first, years ago. Here, again, ideas of nostalgia don't quite get to the point as this piece of music certainly knows its tricks of how to disorient the listener, of how to fulfil the idea of "dream pop" (not to forget that there's some great John Cale-style piano underneath it all).

However, if one were to judge this phase of the band solely by its one video, a very different impression might be left: "Young Man's Stride" is one of the most straightforward rock songs the band has ever recorded, and its video, directed by Moby, engulfs a suddenly rather tough-looking band in what seems to my unexperienced eyes like rather generic mid-nineties alt-rock aesthetics – quite unusual for a band that was formed by film students who learned from people like Tony Conrad and had released mostly rather chaotic, humourous and often decidedly psychedelic videos up to that point. An attempt to get more airplay? Experimental film students' interest in for once getting the chance to do a high-profile, professionalised clip funded by its major label? Who knows, but even though it's one of the least convincing artefacts I have encountered from this band, it is worth watching to try and contextualise this oddity.

The same year, most of the band (as Harmony Rockets) spontaneously played an improvised piece at the Rhinecliff Hotel in the band's native Hudson Valley, later to be released as Paralyzed Mind Of The Archangel Void, forty minutes of intense and shapeshifting drone rock and one of these musicians' most (physically and creatively) energetic releases that would fit in nicely with recent waves of immersive psychedelic drone artists. And indeed, with Harmony Rockets' appearance at one of the recent ATP festivals, performing the originally improvised piece in its entirety as a puzzling but relatively exciting choice for ATP's Don't Look Back series (which I generally can't claim to be particularly fond of due to a variety of implications in its conception, but that is a very different story), the album might finally receive some recognition.

Thus, between See You On The Other Side's almost Song Cycle-style psychedelic classicist experiments, the muscular dark alt-rock aesthetics of the "Young Man's Stride" video and Harmony Rockets' swirling drone bliss, it's hard to pin-point where Mercury Rev found themselves in 1995; and in the face of the overly linear band history I introduced at the beginning of this review, that probably is a good thing. Fortunately, the band's 1995 Peel Session throws yet another curve ball. The aforementioned "Everlasting Arm", the album's only actual single, crashes in with huge power chords, while Jonathan Donahue's vocals sound a lot more assured than on the record, even hinting at some professional entertainer-style flourishes, while Suzanne Thorpe's flute melody appears to stay true to the original recording and, just like on the sped-up "Downs Are Feminine Balloons", almost heroically so, underlining her importance to the band's early history. "Racing The Tide" needs less tweaking to follow "Everlasting Arm"'s straight-forward jazz-rock style, having relied quite a bit on those big chords on the studio version already. However, here they are brought to the fore, painting yet another different image of the band's approach at the time. A cover of "I Only Have Eyes For You" appears more obvious, almost like a successor to "Boys Peel Out", while "Close Encounters Of The 3rd Grade" remains the same jazzy jam it always was, closing this rather unexpected, strangely polished session. Here, Mercury Rev don't sound like a band in transition, a band unassured of what it's doing, and, with the exception of that cover, arguably not like a band that is going to record Deserter's Songs next.

However, when a slightly glammy cover of John Lennon's "I Don't Want To Be A Soldier" opens that album's session and thus disc 2, things seem to make a bit more sense again, also reminding me that Mercury Rev's live act stayed quite rock-based and "electric" even for the band's mellower songs well into the 21st century. That said, "The Funny Bird" and "Tonite It Shows", combined here into one continuous track, do a great job at capturing Deserter's Songs' unique late-night-in-the-Hudson Valley atmosphere.

Most importantly, the latter song's stripped down arrangement resembles the impossibly hazy sessions the band did for KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic around that time; the opportunity to stream these sessions would later make me check out Neil Young's On The Beach, my first album of his, as a cover of "Motion Pictures" was among the songs performed. Picture Donahue singing this downbeat tune with a faint, sleepy smile on his face and a faint, sleepy organ in the background, and you might get an impression of what these sessions sound like... at least in my memory. After the experiences discussed in the earlier paragraphs, songs like "Tonite It Shows" suggest yet again that one of the most interesting thing's achieved by Mercury Rev appears to be what could be called, albeit somewhat unhelpfully, a hard-to-grasp timelessness of big parts of their music. Despite certainly not being without peers, without context, having played as Sonic Youth's support act, shared personnel with The Flaming Lips and toured with My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized, and despite an obvious fondness for sounds of old (but maybe recaptured as if new?), attaching what's heard to any specific era and its perceived preferences doesn't quite seem to work. Back in the context of this particular session, the next turn, of course, leads entirely elsewhere again: a dreamy but polished cover of Captain Beefheart's "Observatory Crest" with its jumpy, straightforward rhythm is probably closer to the band's next two albums, maybe like a less mysterious and evocative (but still affecting) All Is Dream outtake.

All Is Dream, then, while receiving quite a bit of critical recognition, seems like a pretty difficult record to accept for many in comparison to the less polished, less professional(ised) work Mercury Rev had released throughout the nineties. It was the first album to be centered around the now stable line-up of Donahue, Grasshopper and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Mercel and, sadly, the last one thus far to feature Suzanne Thorpe (who joined the group for the recent Harmony Rockets set), and certainly the most "classically" opulent album they had released up to that point; Boces' opulence and colourful character lay elsewhere, in how brass and strange effects combined with noisy explosions and Baker's prankster vocals; All Is Dream, however, sounds rather symphonic, most obviously so on opener "The Dark Is Rising" with its huge cinematic washes of synth strings. Structurally, the album is effective in arguably rather conservative ways, leading through a dark first half/middle section, mellowing in the Catskills' twilight later on and then ascending towards a cathartic climax with (personal favourite) "Hercules". However, the way the album, or the musicians, inhabit this not particularly unusual type of structure suggests something much more inviting and intriguing than a reduction of the album form to hackneyed album-as-album canon modes, using these structures to roam into different directions and toy with the band's most interesting and evocative lyrics thus far. I have long felt unable to put my finger on what makes this album special to me, how to translate its specific vibes; and even though I didn't know these musics when I first heard All Is Dream, nowadays I feel like the album delivers on some of the promises of Neil Young's work with arranger Jack Nitzsche, with whom All Is Dream should have been recorded, had he not died shortly before the sessions' start. The band recorded it with Nitzsche's approach and aesthetics in mind, ending up with their own take on and realisation of what Joseph Stannard, in his Wire magazine piece on "the alternative Neil Young", considers the suggestion "of a mythic, all-inclusive psychedelic Americana" (The Wire 296, p. 42) encountered in Young's "Broken Arrow" and Brian Wilson's "Heroes And Villains". An album like All Is Dream arguably sacrifices a certain kind of musical freedom found on less structured works, but maybe, in this case, it is the adherence to song form and album-length narrative that allows for a successful mythic inclusion?

The band's last Peel Session may not be as opulent as the band's studio work – "Little Rhymes" in particular sounds stripped down here, missing, among other things, Mary Gavazzi Fridmann's background vocals, an essential factor to the album's character – but still remains very close to it and very successfully so, too, even though it might not lead to the same conclusions as the album itself. The two songs that aren't originals in this relatively lengthy session, one a version of Satie's "GymnopĂ©dies" on solo piano and the other a cover of Black Sabbath's "Planet Caravan", may make strange bedfellows on paper but fit the band's material (here also including "Tides Of The Moon", "Spiders And Flies" and"Hercules") nicely. "Planet Caravan" in particular offers an opportunity for the Rev to indulge in its darker, trippier modes, more so than most other post-Boces recordings, following more obviously psychedelic channels and, ten years after Yerself Is Steam and six after Paralyzed Mind Of The Archangel Void, even sounding quite close to psychedelic nomads like Bardo Pond once again. Like compilation opener "Frittering", closer "Hercules" does a good job at conveying the epic without appearing cheesy, too obvious or derivative; its success largely lies in its constant repetition, making the first four minutes appear much longer than they actually are, amounting to one of the more structurally interesting pieces the band has released in recent years.

Apart from the music's thoroughly excellent quality, making this one of the most interesting compilations I have encountered (and presumably one of the more diverse one-band compilations one is going to find on a major label), what strikes me about The Peel Sessions is the good job it does at challenging my assumptions about a band I have been hearing for longer than most other personal favourites – there aren't many other bands I liked when I was 17 that I still listen to regularly, and despite my general changes in taste/musical interest from the britpop days of yore to nowadays' psych/drone/noise/whatever obsessions, there always is a danger of personal approaches ossifying. Do I still like Mercury Rev the same way, in the same terms as back in 2001 or 2002? It almost feels like that, but is that actually possible? I can only assume that the codes Mercury Rev have been using over the years to tool with a vast variety of idioms are still ones I'm looking for, even though my ways of decoding their music(s) may have, must have changed. They may not be the musically "freest" band in my collection, but their mastery of – mostly so-called "psychedelic" – coding within and without song structures appears to make them a project I can continually connect to whatever my other interests are, be they Oasis and Pulp back then or Double Leopards and Sun Araw now, bizarrely enough making them a decidedly and almost archetypically "American" band in terms of its aesthetics, despite my distrust in such a potentially reductionist concept. This may suggest that I like them enough for them to have become "untouchable" in my book, or that a certain non-determinist character, some form of adaptability is to be found in their music that leaves plenty of possible channels to connect through beyond divisions between "pop" and "the experimental". Maybe it is their keeping-fluid of the idioms toyed with, and maybe the aforementioned concept of "mythic, all-inclusive Americana" can be applied to their entire discography, making their evoked American topography one that doesn't require roots and is, instead, one that is quite adventurous to follow.

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