Mercury Rev finally gets its equal due on both sides of the atlantic

:: Mercury Rev::
 :: Fox Theatre :: December 14::

By Timothy Dwenger

Often in the world of indie-rock, a band explodes onto the scene with one major buzz-soaked album and then, in many cases, gradually fades off into the wings as critics focus their attention on new cutting edge acts that sprout up every day. Once in a while a band comes along that bucks that trend and matures right out there in the open, warts and all. Mercury Rev is one of these bands.

Formed in the mid-’80s in upstate New York, Mercury Rev exploded onto the scene in Europe in 1991 when their debut album Yerself Is Steam was hailed as one of the year’s best records in the U.K. But things simply didn’t catch on the same way here in the States. Mercury Rev was nearly 10 years and a full three albums into their existence before they were taken seriously by American fans and critics.

In a recent interview with The Marquee shortly after sound check for a gig in Copenhagen, Denmark, founding member and guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak tried to sum up this disparity. “Since the beginning we’ve always had a bigger following here because when our first record came out on Rough Trade, the label went out of business in the U.S. and we ended up doing much more touring over here,” said Mackowiak.

With the failure of the label came the unwelcome reality that all promotion and distribution of the album ceased immediately. As a result, the record went largely unnoticed in the U.S. until it was re-issued in 1999.

The record that propelled them from the ranks of the unknown on American shores was their 1998 opus, Deserter’s Songs. On Deserter’s Songs the band began to adopt and refine the musical style that they are still pursuing today. Despite complex melodies, dreamy effects and lead vocalist Jonathan Donahue’s distinct soaring tenor, the band managed to seamlessly integrate into their sound the flavors of Americana that saturate the Catskills of New York, where they were living at the time.

Mercury Rev even took the brave step of calling on local residents, and godfathers of Americana, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band, to help them out on a few tracks. Though between them, the two only played on three of the album’s 12 tracks, their influence is apparent. Remembering the recording sessions fondly, Grasshopper said, “When Levon starts drumming it’s hard not to fall into that Americana style.”

Fast forward to 2008 and the band has continued to mature and refine their unique musical style. Defying convention in an era where that seems to be more and more the norm, Mercury Rev released two albums at the end of September. The more mainstream Snowflake Midnight is available for purchase, while the companion album Strange Attractor is available completely free as a download from the band’s website, and they have been getting tons of positive feedback. “I met this German couple the other night,” said Grasshopper. “They had just downloaded Strange Attractor and they told me they listened to it the whole way in the car as they drove from Hamburg to Cologne for our show.”

When recording sessions began, the band had no intention of recording two independent albums, but things seemed to happen so naturally they just went with it because it felt right. “We recorded the albums at the same time but Strange Attractor was pretty much done by Jonathan, Jeff and I while Snowflake Midnight was done with Dave Fridmann,” Grasshopper explained. “We would record hours and hours of stuff on our own and then work with Fridmann to refine it, because he is so busy these days that we were only able to get in with him for five or six days in a row, once a month. In the meantime, we were working on this other material and it developed into two separate records but they were being recorded simultaneously.”

The records differ significantly in that Snowflake Midnight is an album of pop flavored and lyric based songs while Strange Attractor is a complex instrumental record that has a very ambient feel. In math and physics, a strange attractor is an “attractor for which the approach to the final set of physical properties is chaotic,” and while that might be over most people’s heads, Grasshopper quickly put it into perspective. “Some of the music on Strange Attractor was influenced by and was actually created by a random note generator,” he explained. “You set the parameters and the key and what you want it to do and then it will produce music and we would play along with that, so Strange Attractor fits in well with that theme.”

Whether they are crafting majestic dreamy pop songs or experimenting with ambient sounds, Mercury Rev has always pushed the limits of their creative potential, often with astonishing results. Their passion for music extends seamlessly into their live shows, which are rich multimedia events that are highlighted by a video and light show that enhances the band’s powerful stage presence. It is a thing of wonder and must be seen to be truly understood.

:: Mercury Rev::
:: Fox Theatre :: December 14::

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