Monday, 15 February 2016
Oliver: Mercury Rev - [Peel Session] (12 January 1992)
July 21 2001, I'm sat in the dungeon at Windsor Castle, the ceilidh band are about to strike up their latest jig and Caz, who I've managed to charm into my arms and kisses with a joke about William Hague is telling me about her favourite band. Arguably still the best wedding weekend I've ever attended outside of my own and when we reach 2001, in the next half century, I'll provide some proper context....
I was only dimly aware of Mercury Rev by that time. Had I been paying attention, I'd have jumped aboard the Deserter's Songs bandwagon. But in 1998, I was devoting more time tilting at windmills like The Supernaturals or Delakota. As breathlessly and rhapsodically as she talked about Mercury Rev, all I could do was smile and nod encouragement, while wishing that I could actually offer some insight back at her about them in order to make a glorious evening even better.
With fortuitous timing though, Mercury Rev released the follow up to Deserter's Songs a couple of weeks after that wedding. All is Dream went on my Christmas list and to my great shame, although I bought it, I haven't listened to it more than 3 or 4 times in the preceding years. The music was epic, panoramic, shot through with spidery tension and brittle, loving emotion, but I couldn't make it a regular play in my life. I always feel that way about any pop music which seemingly requires you to dress up in formal evening wear in order to listen to it. Nite and Fog remains one of my favourite songs ever though and considering that the last time I heard the album in full, I was listening to it in my car while driving away from a farce of a birthday party (not mine), 9 years ago, the words "ripe for re-appraisal" keep dipping into my conciousness with every word I write in this post.
I can't remember much of what Caz told me about Mercury Rev on that glorious drink-filled weekend, but I don't remember her saying anything about them starting out with a different vocalist. If the Mercury Rev sound can be boiled down into one constituent part then the quavery, taut vocals of Jonathan Donahue would be it. However, this Peel session which was a repeat of one broadcast oringinally on 5 October 1991, showcases the band at a time when Donahue was in the background and the vocals were delivered in an equally distinctive, though somewhat more lugubrious style by David Baker. Imagine a sound somewhere between Max Headroom and Paul Robeson and that's Mercury Rev before Donahue piloted towards its more elated reputation.
Had I been listening on 12/1/92, I may very well have named Mercury Rev as my new favourite band off the back of this session (apologies to Hole.). Those wondering if there was any alternative to grunge would have found much to appeal to them here, with tracks ranging from the epic, Velvet Underground infused, opener Chasin' a Bee (Chasin' a Girl Inside a Car) - all squally whines and slow motion breezes - the audio equivalent of trying to chase something either insect or human around the confines of a hot car, across sticky leather upholstery. It's unsettling, strange and utterly beguiling if you're in the right mood for it.
But this was no bunch of one-trick ponies and after the darkness, they serve up a full on glam-style
stomper in Syringe Mouth - all driving drums and head banging guitar riffs. And from that, with tasteful lashings of stringy indie guitar and clarinet, suddenly they're giving Loaded-era Primal Scream a run for their money with Coney Island Cyclone. Three songs - one group - all pointing to a different direction from the 1992 zeitgeist. Maybe they were seen as too hi-falutin' amid the onslaught of blood on the tracks pain that many of their countrymen would hit paydirt with, and had to wait until the world was ready for Donahue's widescreen cinematic vision. Or maybe people hated the punning album titles. Either way, it's a darn shame that the David Baker Years are seen as Mercury Rev, before they got good, when on the evidence of this session, even leaving aside vague space rocker final track, Frittering, they were one of the best around from the very start. But what did Caz think of the David Baker Years? I was too pissed to remember.
Still one of the 10 best songs ever written in my opinion:
Video courtesy of Vibracobra23 and Walliewall.