Mercury Rev - "Deserter's Songs" (V2 1998, VVR1002772)

From Aural Innovations #5 (January 1999)

Whereas in the first half of the 90's Mercury Rev played a spazzed out, quirky and noisy psychedelia, a sort of "Lost In Space", Gong-meets-Flaming Lips, the Mercury Rev of their two recent albums have toned down the demented acid freakouts, and without the quirky ramblings of the former singer, the creative nucleus of Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper (both guitar) and Suzanne Thorpe's airy flute playing, provide a dreamier slice of psychedelia. Stylistically and instrumentally this evokes, to my ears anyway, Love's "Forever Changes" and Miles Davis "Sketches of Spain" (the latter whom they have covered in the past with "Very Sleepy Rivers"), but imagine in a grainy 1930/40's Coney Island setting, with a childlike, magical Disney feel with lush arrangements. Mercury Rev makes a mythic past reappear like a faded, yellowed picture coming to life again. I might have blown the dust off and bought "Deserter's Songs" in a magical junk shop for a nickel, or I might have ordered it on the internet with plastic money...

"Tonite It Shows", "Holes", and "Endlessly" are arguably shimmering highlights, whereas "I Collect Coins" is like a scratched old 78 (cliche gimmick, working splendidly for once) evoking dusty old ballrooms left untouched for half a century. "Opus 40" is another signature tune on the album as well, and "Hudson Line" carries on with heapings of childlike wonder, with sax and heavier guitar parts and an earthy B3 organ... not to mention (in general) an eerie bowed saw, piano, harpsichord and much more, providing a breathtaking, earthy atmosphere brimming with Americana, yet with an oddly Syd Barrett-like flavor as well.

The possible slight blemish here is that "Deserter's Songs" does slip abit towards the end song-wise, as if they put all the best songs on first! Fairly straight up stuff like "Goddess On A Highway" and "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp", plus a few dissonant, experimental instrumentals, are somewhat removed from the magic of the first side, but then maybe the division was intentional so as to simulate a sort of LP "feel" as well. Levon Helm of The Band guests on the album, playing drums on one track. I can't recommend "Deserter's Songs" enough - definitely not spacerock in its purest form (go for their first album for that), but definitely a classic, psychedelic, record.

Reviewed by Christian Mumford

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