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It's exciting to discover albums as rich as this, but frustrating to realise that several years had gone by in which I could have already heard it. I vaguely knew of an American indie band who sang "holes dug by little moles", but never got around to looking deeper. Now, while simultaneously discovering the Flaming Lips, I'm starting to realise that Dave Fridmann could be the greatest producer of his generation. On "Deserter's Songs", under his studio direction, Mercury Rev forge a sound that's psychedelic both in its anything-goes attitude as in its dreaminess and floweriness. Musically descended from Brian Wilson, each song seems to be started with no preconceptions of what noises a band should make. For example that distinctive musical saw, the signature of this album, isn't a mere gimmick. Bowed deftly by Joel Eckhouse it's beautiful, both romantic and alien. Touches like the vinyl crackles on the two little instrumental interludes ensure that wistful nostalgia and warmth are perfectly compatible with studio polish.
The depths and heights scaled by the musical arrangements of "Deserter's Songs" lie firmly in the service of great songwriting. Jon Donahue's fractured lyrics may make little literal sense, but he has a deft way with words, as in the way the chain of rhymes on "Holes" ends hauntingly with "how does that old song go". This sweepingly romantic opening track has a tune that washes away the ridiculousness of the "dug by little moles" lyric. Every note and harmony in this glorious song is placed to perfection. Even the jazzy trumpet solo at the end doesn't seem gratuitous, merely heightening the emotion.
Dream-pop kaleidoscopes like the intimate "Tonite It Shows", the patiently meandering "Endlessly" and the gospel-tinged, big-chorused "Opus 40" are laden with a glitter of psychedelia, Strawberry-Fields keyboards and orchestral warmth. Donahue's fragile vocals are always mixed intimately at the front. One moment where he takes a back seat is on the fogged, melancholic "Funny Bird", when his voice is muffled with distortion behind a pomp-rock flight of fancy and Dave Gilmour-sized guitar solo. Talking of Pink Floyd, the instrumental "Pick Up If You're There" evokes the space rock masters at their peak, that gorgeous singing saw leading a climax of understated quietness. A straightforward but brilliant rock single, "Goddess on a Hiway" brings these extravaganzas down to earth, but only just. It has just as much space and emotion, a pounding chorus to die for, and simple but mind-bendingly creepy lyrics.
There's an irritating tendency of American music critics to start their reviews of every UK album by remarking how oh-so-British it is. It's just as vacuous to say that Deserter's Songs is an essentially American album. On the other hand, such an over-general statement may be more pertinent than it appears, due to the sheer scale and variety of both the country and the album. Although the obviously locally-influenced tracks are probably the least interesting, such as "Hudson Line" with its gnawing sax and perpetual-motion drums. The strumming and, well, stomping, "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp" whirls the album to a slide-guitar fuelled conclusion.
The last track conceals one of those irritating surprise CD endings, a piece of gratuitous avant-garde classical noodling, full of spliced Revolution 9-style samples. As if to demonstrate that if you thought the rest of the album was self-indulgent, you're wrong, this is! But I still wish I could have actually discovered one of the best albums of the 1990s in the decade itself.
April 17, 2005