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By: Matthew Swanson

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With “Deserter’s Songs (1998)” and “All is Dream (2001),” the psychedelic rock band Mercury Rev gave the world whimsical, orchestrated, complex songs that sounded like the soundtrack to the most uplifting cartoon epic never made.  For whatever reason, these masterpieces, yes that’s the right word, made a much more significant splash in Europe.  It’s no wonder why it was so hard to find them playing out in the states; they no doubt wanted to play their songs to people who fully appreciated the visionary work they had created.  In 2005, with a chance to parlay their critical acclaims into more commercial success in the U.S., the band then made the horribly corny “The Secret Migration.”  The problem with a band that goes for a sweeping, epic, pretentious sound, is when it falls flat, it falls really, really flat, as it did on “The Secret Migration.”

As strange as it may sound, the first clue that their latest release, “Snowflake Midnight (2008),” would be a return to form was the cover.  I remember working at a record store in the late 1990’s, knowing nothing about Mercury Rev, but something made me put on Deserter’s Songs solely based on the cover.  Although the dark, blurry image appears to be nothing more than a guy lighting what looks to be something to smoke on, it was so ominous and artistic looking that I just had to know what it was all about.  It only took a few seconds of “Holes,” its first track, with its gorgeous, layered instrumentation over Jonathan Donahue’s voice, so piercing yet so gentle, and I was hooked.  There is a lot going on when one looks closely at 2001’s “All is Dream”, a dove, flowers, a woman with no eyeballs, and a tree floating with a beacon of light shooting out of it, among other images, and they’re all packed into an abstract, wonderfully happy yet mysterious layout.  Again, “The Secret Migration” was no good, and the cover, depicting a cartoon butterfly with a human face on its belly and big, human eye balls on its wings, looked for all the world like it would be a self-important (even the expression on the human face of the butterfly’s belly is smug), corny effort, which it was.

Snowflake Midnight (2008)

Imagine my excitement when I saw the coolest looking album art I’ve seen in a long time for the record that just hit stores, 2008’s “Snowflake Midnight.”  On the front of the record you will find a mug shot, “turn to your right,” close up photo of a black bunny rabbit in a dark room.  This image harkens back to the fun, whimsical (it’s a bunny for crying out loud) nature of the “Dream” cover, but it has the dark, scary flavor of the image on “Deserter’s Songs” (this bunny doesn’t look like he can be trusted).  Now, judging a book by its cover has been historically bad in most cases, people may say that this bunny assuring me that this record would kick ass is some of the dumbest logic ever employed, but I couldn’t have been more right.  This is a record you can’t ignore, it doesn’t sound quite like anything you’ve heard, the songs on the whole are strong in their own right with or without the experimentation, and it’s a record you will find yourself wanting to hear again and again, searching to find just what is on the mind of that oh so enigmatic black bunny.

Upon the start of Snowflake Midnight, swirling synthesizers and pianos fade in like a swarm of bugs who intend to bring the fun.  Donahue urges the snowflake in the hot sun to not let “them” get to him, and to not let “them” tell him that they’re all the same.  That’s sound advice to a snowflake because they are all different, and he needs to be sure not to melt.  But, he just may melt into “something better” and “someone new.”  That is a good example of the wonderfully bazaar yet touching subject matter Mercury Rev deals with, which, along with a similar voice and overall sound, is why they often draw comparisons to The Flaming Lips.  Heck, Donahue even had a tenure in the band.  However, they’re not just a knock off, by any means.  This is a record that can easily stand along side some of The Lips finer work, which for anybody who cares about modern psychedelic music, is damn good company.  Indeed, most every song on this album pushes bounds and entertains, but most importantly, “Snowflake in a Hot World” shows the Rev can still make music that uplifts and inspires.  Beyond musicianship and putting words together, what matters most in rock music is moving people, and these guys are fully aware of that fact.

Another strong track, “Butterfly’s Wing” continues the dance beats, electronics, and experimentation that permeate all of these songs, but what are most effective are the multiple sets of haunting vocals and some creepy laughing children during one interlude.  Despite the fact that the lyrics on “Senses on Fire” are little more than its title repeated over-and-over, because of the building force of its sound, starting with trickling raindrops and rising toward a sonic blast of increasingly intense drums, keyboards, and a distorted vocal yelling “ready or not, here I come,” musically, it’s perhaps the most emotive track.

In “People Are So Unpredictable,” Donahue lets us know that “unshielded by booze, people are so unpredictable,” and the song itself, the most progressive on the album, is anything but predictable.  It starts fairly conventional, then ventures into corridors of screams like you’re being taken down an 18th Century insane asylum, but no sound, vocal, or echoing unnerving breath, is wasted.  “October Sunshine” is impressive, works as a means of giving the work some balance in the middle, but it has too much of a movie score vibe and not enough listenability to stand on its own.  However, Mercury Rev don’t seem to have hit singles in mind with every track they lay down, and that’s quite all right in this day and age; A band making bodies of work that are meant to be listened to in their entirety, not ones that people can break down for their parts with illegal downloads like a stolen Honda Civic.

“Runaway Raindrop” continues to impress with a moving piece of music and some of the most interesting instrumentation on the record, including what almost sounds like a harpsichord, but it lacks the type of palatable vocal melody that the band is capable of.   “Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower” is the longest one, and it gives the band a chance to show that they can jam out with some intense, bombastic drumming, and what sounds like old school video game noises, then back into primarily just a regular, old piano and Donahue singing about a girl dreaming of being a flower in a field.  In the writer’s dream, she is that flower, and with music this compelling, for a moment you may think, who’s to say she isn’t?

“Faraway from Cars” is perhaps one of the only overtly socially conscious songs with no mention of any animals or anything other worldly that you will find in the Mercury Rev catalog.  There is some rhythmic hand clapping, and then Donahue says “there’s a little part of you far away from cars.”  He goes onto to say that there’s a little part far away from cash, war, tears, past, shore, fear, and most importantly, far away from here.  He doesn’t make the mistake of telling us where exactly this part of us is, and what we gain from keeping that little part of us removed from all these elements; he simply leaves it up to the listeners decide how they can escape to that place and what that place can do for them.  “A Squirrel and I (Holding On . . . And Then Letting Go)” is a bit of a let down musically and in terms of closing the record out with a bang, but it does have all important parting words which any epic record should have, this record’s being, “It’s all about holding on and then letting go.”

Without a doubt, “Snowflake Midnight” does hold onto you and lets you go, but it lets you go feeling a little cozier than when it first got hold of you.  It takes you down numerous bazaar twists and turns, but unlike some experimental records that are weird just for the sake of being weird, every avenue they explore has dazzling melodies that keep you hooked in for the entirety of the journey through snowflakes, squirrels, flowers, raindrops, and wolves, among other fun things.  Sadly, there is no mention of a black bunny, but because Mercury Rev has returned to form with “Snowflake Midnight,” we should just be happy they’re back, and be content to leave the answer to that mystery as something known only to the Rev and the bunny.



All opinions expressed by Matthew Swanson are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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