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The Planet Mercury 

Fast approaching its sweet 16, college-rock stalwart Mercury Rev is as vital as ever, whether you're paying attention or not

Wednesday, Apr 20 2005
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In the grand scheme of Mercury Rev's majestic and wondrous sixth album, The Secret Migration, "Moving On" is easy to overlook. Just a minute or so long, it's the ninth of 13 tracks; an interlude bridging the gentle Floydian sweep of "My Love" and the flurry of backward guitar and electric piano that feeds "The Climbing Rose." The song fades in with synths twinkling like the twilight sky unveiling its stars, bolstered only by modest snare hits, then introduces a gospel-flavored vocal harmony -- led by the high, aching quiver of singer/guitarist Jonathan Donahue -- that repeats a simple affirmation three times before the song departs: "You gotta start movin' on/ It will be better in the sun/ Just move ahead, it won't be long/ And it'll be brighter ...." A fleeting moment, to be sure, but one that eloquently encapsulates the mind-set of the upstate New York band now entering its 16th year.

"There's certainly a sense of optimism that runs through this record, and a sense of all the possibilities laid out before us," says drummer and pianist Jeff Mercel, who along with Donahue and guitarist Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak forms Mercury Rev's creative core. "And not one bit of it is forced sentiment. That's such a crucial part of who we are as people and what this band is all about -- the possibility for change, and of hope."

That the band -- which also includes touring drummer Jason Miranda (freeing Mercel up to play keyboards exclusively on their current trek) and bassist Anthony Molina -- has managed to ensconce itself in a place of relative peace and sanguineness is remarkable, given its roller coaster of a back story.

First there arrived heaping acclaim for Mercury Rev's 1991 noise-pop debut, Yerself Is Steam, and its equally clamorous 1993 follow-up, Boces. Then came the 1994 exodus of original singer David Baker (shortly following an onstage altercation among him, Donahue, and Grasshopper in the U.K., the culmination of years of alcohol-fueled acrimony) and other band members that nearly led to the group's dissolution. Next, there was the falling-out with the record label -- coupled with Donahue's spiraling descent into heroin addiction -- around the time of 1995's transitional See You on the Other Side (which swapped the band's heralded dissonance for brighter, cleaner sounds, throwing off many fans and critics), resulting in personal breakdowns, sustained infighting, and the temporary breakup of the group.

Act 2 begins with the glorious 1998 comeback on V2 Records: the career-redefining, symphonic-rock masterpiece Deserter's Songs, widely hailed as one of the '90s' best, most inspiring albums. What followed next were the momentum-halting events surrounding All Is Dream -- an even more orchestral and mystical disc that was well reviewed, but had the misfortune of being released on Sept. 11, 2001. Throughout it all, Mercury Rev has had huge success in England and across Europe, and relative commercial indifference in the United States.

But, as Mercel (who joined up just before Deserter's Songs and whose stabilizing influence has been vital to the group) continues to muse, he and his bandmates have made peace with the tumult and are proud of their strange trip thus far.

"A lot of water has passed under the bridge, and we are a very different band now than we were," he says. "And we will continue to change. Ten years from now we'll be a different band than what we are right now, I'm sure of that."

The Secret Migration does, in fact, signal a slight shift in direction for Mercury Rev; a subtle merging of the two distinct phases of the band's past. There's a greater reliance on guitars (of myriad shapes and textures, from delicate and elegant to fuzzy and bombastic), keyboards, and urgent rhythms than on strings-and-brass pomp, though the album retains the epic, emotional sweep of its two predecessors; and its lyrical ruminations on love and the awe-inspiring beauty of nature are more vulnerable and ardent than on any previous outing. Taken as a whole, the disc's magical, attention-grabbing moments are too numerous to catalog -- it could very easily supplant Deserter's Songs as the average Rev fan's favorite of all six albums.

"Many of the underlying principles and methodology that went into the early records are still quite evident in Deserter's Songs, All Is Dream, and The Secret Migration, we've just moved around a little bit in terms of our palette," says Mercel. "Yes, the early records have a lot more heavy guitar work and the new records are either more heavily orchestrated or work with more of the ambient textures. But the way we approach and develop the songs, the layered approach to arrangement that we tend to use, is the same as always.

"The only difference is that we may be a little lighter on the number of tracks these days, as opposed to some of the earlier records," he continues. "We're trying to do more with less. For every track that's on a song, there's probably three that got erased. Some of the songs on this new record sound particularly dense but there's actually a lot less going on."

Migration was recorded at the band's new Kingston, N.Y., studio (a converted drugstore) with longtime associate Dave Fridmann at the helm. Noted perfectionists, the members spent at least two days away from the studio, quietly reflecting on what they were working on, for every day they were actually in the studio writing or recording. And even if the musicians share a tighter personal bond now than ever before, Mercel laughs that their creative process is quite often frustrating and rife with tension.

"It's not always sweet bliss and harmony in the studio, but you gotta allow room for people to follow their ideas through to completion. You gotta resist the urge to squash someone else's ideas when you don't understand them, because it just may be that they're not fully developed. But it's not something any of us have mastered. We have our good days, when you're open to all the possibilities, and other days when, quite honestly, you don't wanna hear what someone's doin'. But you make the effort, and that's what's important."

And, he adds, once again having Fridmann as a no-nonsense producer and engineer was crucial to the album's formation.

"He's on equal footing with us, and we tell him what we like and don't like, sometimes in very blunt terms, and so does he. Not in a bad way, but in the way that only old friends can be with one another, like, 'Hey, you know what? This is not your best effort. I know, because I've heard you do it in the past.' That can be hard to hear sometimes, but that's the nature of our relationship and why we started working with him and why we continue working with him."

Mercel says the band is ecstatic about taking Migration out on the road after nearly a four-year U.S. touring layoff, and he cheerfully admits that Mercury Rev is "sort of starting from square one again." The band's continued success in England led to it putting out the album there nearly five months before Migration's May 17 stateside release, and the Rev has spent the first part of 2005 trekking through Europe with its legendarily rapturous show. Whether or not the album connects with American fans remains to be seen, but the group prefers to take a broader view of its ongoing creative journey.

"Hopefully we're working on maybe a little longer of an arc, where if we don't achieve the commercial success that some people expect of us, well, maybe you're not looking far enough into the future," says Mercel. "Maybe we're the type of band that will be evaluated on our body of work as a whole as opposed to, 'Oh, they had the big hit in 2005 and then they evaporated.' We're here for the long haul, and if that means no Top 10 hits, so be it. We'll still be around making music, that I can promise you."

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Michael Alan Goldberg

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