Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Although Mercury Rev is a widely recognized name among indie rockers, especially those with roots in the 90's, the group's first two albums - their best - have fallen by the wayside. There's a reason for that: the band lost founding member and singer David Baker to "creative differences" after the release of Boces, their sophomore effort. There seems to be bad blood, given that the band has all but disowned their first two records. The biography on the band website intentionally understates Baker's role, but there's strong evidence that he had a broad influence on the band's creative directions.
Even if it was not due to Baker's departure, there is no doubt the group took a radical turn, following up Boces with increasingly commercial, mellow, straight-forward releases, most notably 1998's highly touted Deserter's Songs. This is the Mercury Rev you are most likely to have heard; Boces has drifted in and out print with frustratingly little availability in U.S. stores.
But Boces is Mercury Rev at its finest. It's an explosion of tripped-out technicolor pop. Each tiny, quirky part falls magically into place like so many gears in a crazed inventor's masterpiece. The arrangements are at once fragmented and seamless, an effect achieved through intricate - but never dense - layers of sound.
The first song, the ten and a half minute "Meth of a Rockette's Kick," breaks too many pop song rules to count. With its length and slow start, it's a risky choice to open the album, but its bright pop melodies are masterfully spaced out with floating sections and it never once becomes boring. The whole track ends with a funky racket starring everything from trombone to saxophone to glockenspiel to piano. This outburst is pushed to its climax with the addition of bizarre sixties girl group vocals, mixed low. It's an unabashed snapshot of pop music's history at its most cheesy and its most backwards. And it is hard to swallow at first, but once the confusion wears off, it's the album's most beautiful moment.
The other tracks don't fall far short. "Bronx Cheer" is a noise-pop gem, burying an irresistible mini-melody under layers of fuzzy sound and delivering it at a deliberately breakneck speed. "Boys Peel Out" is a loungey meditation on 1950's pop culture, while "Something For Joey" and "Hi-Speed Boats" are pure pop gold. The album's central ballad, "Downs Are Feminine Balloons," playfully but sadly proclaims "if there's one thing I can't stand, it's up."
The entire album sounds like a dream, defiant of logic and explanation. But only if your dream is set in a candy shop where a hundred bright colors are a hundred different kinds of delicious. Blending the druggy sweetness of the 60's with the lo-fi noise of the 90's, Boces is a unique achievement in American underground pop, a fun listen from the first note on and an interesting record the hundredth time through.