What's the Origin of Mercury Rev's name?
1. An imaginary Russian ballet dancer.
2. A sharp rise in temperature.
3. A revved-up auto.
All three have been mentioned in band bios so take your pick.
Some bands get together and set a straight course toward success while while others are mired in confusion. Mercury Rev is a prime example of the latter. Not so much a band as a chaotic concept, Mercury Rev began in the late '80s.
Originally it was vocalist David Baker, vocalist/guitarist Jonathan Donahue, guitarist/clarinetist, Sean Mackowiak (a.k.a. Grasshopper), bass flutist Suzanne Thorpe, bassist Dave Fridmann, and drummer Jimy Chambers. They began in Buffalo providing music for student films before recording a demo that was to make an incredible journey. But Donahue soon took a job as a guitar tech for The Flaming Lips and eventually became their guitarist. Meanwhile, that demo tape made its way to the offices of England's Rough Trade label.
The record company contacted Baker about recording the group. Even though Donahue and Fridmann were also working on the Lip's debut, Mercury Rev convened to lay down what became "Yerself In Steam." Critically acclaimed, the album ran into immediate problems.
The U.S. branch of Rough Trade declared bankruptcy meaning distribution of the Rev debut was limited at best. Following a reckless (no practices or set lists, fights - on and off stage, etc.) British tour the band went their separate ways. The story might have ended there had Sony not decided to reissue "Yerself In Steam," adding the track "Car Wash Hair." The group was given an advance which Fridmann spent on a Bermuda vacation for his mother. His bandmates were not pleased. What's surprising is that bass players are usually the most reliable, grounded and least self-centered members of a band.
Mercury Rev regrouped for their sophomore release "Boces," named in honor of an upstate NY school for children. The '93 release was followed by a tour that included playing the second stage at Lollapalooza. But when the tour hit Denver the group got kicked off for making "excessive noise" (at Lollapalooza?) Add to that the "Something For Joey" video with porn star Ron Jeremy and it was clear Mercury Rev was nowhere near breaking through.
Baker left for a solo career in '94 while the group continued as a quintet. "See You On The Other Side" came out a year later. Also, an excursion in ambient noise titled "Paralyzed Mind of the Archangel Void" was released under the name Harmony Rockets. "Deserter's Songs" came next.
The '98 release managed to land on many critic's "best of" lists which helped keep things rolling. For "All Is Dream" the group was scheduled to work with legendary arranger Jack Nitzsche. But as often happens with legends, Nitzsche died a week before recording was to begin. When the album was finally completed it had the misfortune to be released on 9/11/01. Four years later, and still popular in the U.K., Mercury Rev released "The Secret Migration."
1991 Yerself Is Steam
1995 See You On The Other Side
1995 Paralyzed Mind Of The Archangel Void (as 'Harmony Rockets')
1998 Deserter's Songs
2001 All Is Dream
2005 The Secret Migration
2008 Snowflake Midnight
2015 The Light in You
Since Donahue took over Mercury Rev has sounded like John Lennon circa '74 or, at worst, some tortured singer/songwriter. Better to imitate Lennon, at least there's some weight there. This dreamy, wandering, self-actualizing material has a certain charm. And there's a sincerity that doesn't go unnoticed.
"The Secret Migration" is Mercury Rev's best work. On "Secret For A Song" and "Moving On" are spot on Lennon. "Across Yer Ocean" is near Lennon. However, the sets best track "In The Wilderness" comes across like U2 lite.
"All Is Dream" works best with songs that have a sense of urgency. "Chains," "Little Rhymes" and "You're My Queen" fit the bill. The lush and laid back "Deserter's Songs" ambles along agreeably but it is the aptly named acoustic romp "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp" that connects.