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The Weird and Wonderful World of Mercury Rev

In the film version of Joseph Hellers classic novel 'Catch 22', the central character, Yossarian, is mistakenly given a medal by his commanding officer for his brave military service. It's an honour he doesn't want so he opts to receive this unwanted award whilst standing naked on the bases runway. The stunned Commander asks a couple of awkward questions about the reasons for his actions and the whereabouts of his uniform but doesn't receive any reasonable answers and squinting at Yossarrian he tells him "Yossarian - You are a very weird person". The hapless soldier quickly salutes and replies "Thank You, Sir". There's nowhere to pin the medal so the Commander isn't quite sure how to respond and he walks away. I was put in mind of that scene on Saturday night (15 December) in St. Nicholas' Cathedral in Newcastle where I was fortunate indeed to attend the pre-Christmas show by the mighty Mercury Rev. They were celebrating the 20th anniversary of their seminal quasi-classical Classic (cough) album 'Deserters Songs' with a 90 minute performance of the entire album. I'll get to the show later after considering some history of this singular band and exploring how they come to be celebrating that album and the route they took to get there from their very different origins, and then I'll cast an ear over their upcoming album 'Bobby Gentry's The Delta Sweete Revisited'. The fact that The Rev are actually putting out an album of covers by an obscure cultish southern singer kind of sums up what my opening statement means - this band are seriously weird!

That journey began back in 1991 with the release of their debut album, the punningly titled 'Yer Self is Steam', which is 49 minutes of psychedelic noise featuring screaming guitars, thumping bassy drums and strange songs that seem to come from a different universe. The guitars in the opening track, 'Chasing a Bee' roar like a wailing banshee and then suddenly drop back to become light as a spring day, whilst the video for the 'promotion' of that song (amazingly released as a single - it wasn't a hit) was recorded in a centre for infectious diseases! On the American Sony/Columbia pressing of the album the lengthily track titled 'Very Sleepy Rivers' is divided amongst tracks 8 to 98. Track 8 contains the first 7:15 while the rest of the song is split amongst the following 90 4-second tracks, netting the song an additional minutes in the process. The audio slowly fades out around track 83 and, around track 88, someone starts saying "pick" repeatedly alongside some barely audible laughter. During this quieter section, a low-level sub-bass was mixed underneath, which reportedly caused damage to some equipment at Sony's mastering studio. As if that wasn't strange enough the sleeve also featured deliberate errors about song running times. Taken together these are hardly features that will increase album sales!

Undeterred by their lack of success with this strange and underrated album they returned to the studio to record 'Boces', released in 1993. The title was inspired by the name of the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, a vocational school in New York State (the band's home). The album picked up where their debut left off with more weird noise, strange vocals and additional quiet-loud shenanigans. The supporting tour as part of the mobile Lolopolozza festival saw them booed off stage for being too loud! That album marked the beginning of a dark period where things began to go wrong and was their last with more the conventional vocals of David Baker with the credits listing Jonathan Donahue on 'Silver Pickup Guitar and Vocals between Ventolin hits'! Donahue would pick things up vocally from here on in and give The Rev their distinctive sound that would take them through their next album and then start to shape things on the sounds that emerged and became 'Deserters Songs'. But before that came 'See You on The Other Side', where things took a dramatic turn and vocalist Jonathon Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper really began to shape the sound of the band. Adding to the darkness the rear cover picture of the album featured a glum looking Donahue staring at a revolver. Donahue has spoken about that album being the blueprint for what came later and really set the direction for Mercury Rev. There's still elements here of the psyched out slabs of noise rock from those first two albums but that's couched with strings and some jazzy arrangements. Sadly, the plan failed and that album, like its two predecessors, bombed in terms of popular acclaim. The band quickly fell into disarray and for all intents and purposes split up with Donahue spiralling into acute depression and Grasshopper spending time in a monastery! But from out of the blackness, a telephone call to Donahue from The Chemical Brothers led to a collaboration on 'The Private Psychedelic Reel' and the fact that anyone remained interested in his band gave Donahue the confidence to get back to his day job. What followed that call was the slow process of recording the now classic 'Deserters Songs', released in 1998 and crowned 'Album of The Year' in Uncut and NME, and ranked at No.5 in Mojo.

It's perhaps fitting that such a wonderfully weird album is commemorated on a freezing winter night in the glorious surroundings of St. Nicholas' Cathedral, just before Christmas. After a short but riveting set from Nashville songstress Nicole Atkins the four piece band step into the swirling dry ice to the strains of pre-recorded music by Ravi Shankar and their own 'The Funny Bird'. Then Donahue's soft ethereal voice floats over the crowd as the band drop into 'Tonight it Shows' that, fittingly, is simply heavenly. There's only eleven songs on the album and it's clear from the off that there isn't going to be much room (with two exceptions) for anything that isn't from 'Deserters Songs'. Throughout the evening Donahue talks effusively about the recording of the album and what was happening when they recorded it. "Tonight" he tells us conspiratorially, "you will here the songs as they were originally recorded, before the $1000 a minute orchestra came in". He describes the songs as "Thin as mist, you could tip them over if they were too loud". Since then there's been a few thousand miles flown beyond the noise-fest of those first two albums and a massive investment in weirdness. The songs tonight aren't quite played chronologically but the barely matters as the venue almost becomes a fifth member of the band enhancing the sound and the atmosphere that quickly make it one of my favourite gigs of this year, hell - it would be a favourite of any year. 'Hudson Line' is a great example of this enhancement as Grasshopper's spectral guitar soars up to the rafters wailing and screaming briefly echoing around the space, it's too short though! Half way through the show Donahue gives fulsome praise to US noise rockers Pavement as the band cover 'Here' from their classic 'Slanted & Enchanted' cited as one of Jonathan's favourite albums. Perhaps it's the line "I was dressed for success but success it never comes" that reminds him about the situation when The Rev were best known for being spectacular failures and underachievers. There isn't a sniff of failure tonight though as the band, back lit by simple crisis crossing lights of blue, red and green deliver their magestic classic album with a deep palpable joy that permeates the respectful crowd who remain quiet and with a minimum of 'selfie' taking.

It's a night to remember as the band deliver a soaring 'Delta Sun' with a resonating slide guitar embedded in the heart of it. That's followed without a preamble by the mysterious swirling 'Goddess on A Hiway' during which you could hear a pin drop and brings the crowd roaring to their feet as it comes to a gentle conclusion. 'Holes' follows and it has a big spacey sound that is, again, enhanced by the fantastic acoustics of the building. The band are bathed in glorious blue light as the dramatic opening notes echo around the great cathedral and Donahue's fragile and vulnerable voice spills out the words. Halfway through from somewhere shrouded in mist, almost it seems from nowhere, the sound of the trumpet pierces the darkness and lifts the whole thing up a couple of notches and its so beautiful that the crowd are held in rapt silence.

Throughout the whole show Donahue has been grinning almost insanely and it's clear how much love they have all invested in this superb show, but sadly now as the band are bathed in a soft blue light they slide into 'Opus 40' and we know that we're almost at the end of the show. This penultimate classic song evolves in front of our very eyes and ears, transforming into a much bigger beast than it is on the album. Sure, it begins in the same way with a gentle winding melody but over the next ten minutes or so it builds into a roaring block of noise and power. It's hard to believe that two guitars, a bass, keyboard and a solitary Tom-Tom drum can combine into such a cacophony of sound and fury. Perhaps it's just an ideal combination of the venue, the band and the crowd but right here we have a merging of all three to create what becomes probably the best live moment of the year for me, sorry - there's no other word but - awesome. The music powers down and we are left with Donahue standing grinning centre stage bathed in white light arms outstretched like Christ-the-redeemer in Rio with the happiest grin on his face. He laughingly comments "Well, there's only so much acoustic music you can take!" Before giving us profuse thanks and quickly launching into a concluding 'The Dark is Rising' from their follow up album 'All is Dream'. Donahue tells us that it probably could have been on 'Deserters Songs' but it wouldn't fit. The central lyric is "I have my suspicion when all the stars are in position - all will be revealed" and maybe, tonight, the stars were in position and that's exactly what happened! With that the show is over and the audience slowly file out into one of the filthiest nights of the year to make their way home and dig out, if they're anything like me, those old Mercury Rev albums.

You might think though that with a new album, 'The Delta Sweete', set for release early in the new year that the band might have at least mentioned the album or had it on sale at the gigs, wouldn't you? But no, as I said this band are seriously weird. The albums that followed 'Deserters Songs' ('All is Dream' and 'The Secret Migration') shared some of their ethereal wonder but they didn't meet with huge chart success. You could reasonably describe the bands recent output as chequered or uneven, though they did return to pysch-rock with 'Snowflake Midnight' and an accompanying free-to-download album of remixes titled 'Strange Attractor' in 2008 that was firmly in the weird genre. Things went quiet until 2015 when 'The Light in You' slipped out barely noticed and whilst it only made number 39 in the UK album charts and didn't chart at all in the good ol' USA, it had a warm and positive critical reception and made a decent job of combining the weirdness of those first three albums with the sweetness and melody of the trilogy of more ethereal albums and is well worth hearing.

But now, now - we`re back to weirdness, we're knee deep in it here! So, The Rev are back firing on all cylinders and they've reminded us what a dark mysterious band they are. With their stupendous live performance they've underlined the fact that 'Deserters Songs' deserves to be up there with classic albums like 'Pet Sounds', 'Astral Weeks', 'Forever Changes', 'Blonde on Blonde', 'Marquee Moon', 'Horses' and 'Revolver' .... but what do they do now?

Of course, they record an album that is a wholesale cover of an obscure Bobby Gentry album - yes - the Bobby Gentry who's one hit wonder eulogised someone "jumping of the Tallahatchie bridge" back in the late 60's, then disappeared. Now, given that there's been a recent massive 11 cd box set of Gentry's albums this might seem like an astute move. Bella Union certainly think so as that most excellent label releases Delta Sweete Revisited in February. But Mercury Rev, being wilful, weird and obscure haven't taken an obvious route. What they have done is make a tribute album that doesn't sound anything like Bobby Gentry and is nothing like Mercury Rev either. Although Jonathon Donahue, Grasshopper and Jess Chandler (formerly of Midlake) provide the music, it's another complete departure from their usual oeuvre. That doesn't mean it's bad, far from it, just not what I would expect, it's yet another twist in the road. So, the music is full and deep but each song is sung by a different female vocalist, so we barely hear Donahue's distinctive, fragile and vulnerable voice at all. These takes are all slightly strange and haunting and we now have covers of covers with 'Tobacco Road' (sung by Norwegian singer Susanne Sundfor) 'Big Boss Man' (sung by Mazzy Starr's Hope Sandoval) and 'Parchment Farm' (sung by Dutch actor/singer Carice Van Houten) that do become something new and different, but it's hard to see what this is all about. Perhaps it's just a loving attempt to get Ms Gentry a bit of kudos, or even money (she retired from music many years ago) who knows. Still, there are some standout tracks and the Theremin in 'Refractions' hints at some of Mercury Rev's weird sounds and it does highlight that there was certainly more to Bobby than her sad tale of suicide at the Tallahatchie bridge. The album concludes with a track that doesn't appear on Gentry's original album - her big hit 'Ode to Billy Joe'. It's sung here by the great Lucinda Williams and retains enough mystery to make it a more than worthwhile cover. A cover of a song on an album of covers, that wasn't even on the original album. Mercury Rev - wonderfully weird from beginning to end.

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