34. MERCURY REV – YERSELF IS STEAM (1991)

When Paul Rothchild was recording the first Doors album, he banned the group from using any effects. He felt this would keep the music timeless, not being sonically linked to any of the current fads or gimmicks. Mercury Rev achieved the same end on Yerself Is Steam, by different means. They use EVERYTHING. They had a flute player. They had a visionary producer (the scope of this record is so wide it had to be recorded on 35mm magnetic film). Their two guitar players are aware of the lineage of psychedelic punk rock history that led up to their particular place and time, but not enslaved or restricted by it in any way.  There’s never a feeling of them trying to ape anyone, looking over their shoulder saying “Are you sure Jimi did it this way?” No, they sound more in love with the sheer joy and chaos they are wringing out of their strings. They also had David Baker, a loose cannon credited with “vocals (when it sounds like something he would do)”. This wasn’t something that just happened on record. When I saw them in Glasgow around the release of this record, he’d climb off the stage and wander around the venue when not involved. The tension between his David Thomas-like bellowing, crooning, whispers and mumbles and Jonathan Donahue more melodic “vocals (when left to himself)” would only survive one more album (the equally great Boces), but for a couple of years there wasn’t another band like them.

Chasing A Bee opens the album. The line “my primitive words match my primitive heart” sums up an air of innocence that runs through the album. Starting slow and low with flute and acoustic guitar David Baker sings of mellow seducers meeting eager seekers. Jonathan Donohue takes over for the chorus, and the song builds beautifully until the 3 minute 10 mark when all holy hell is unleashed. A descending four note flute battles with screeching guitars, and the whole thing builds and decays into the two chord Seeds style stomper Syringe Mouth.

Coney Island Cyclone is sheer joy. The sound on this is as refreshing as a sea breeze in your face. The opening guitar sounds like its trying to work out The Creation’s The Girls are Naked. The refrain of “I won’t chicken out” will worm its way into your brain until it becomes your mantra for life. David Baker is back with an absurdly low voice on Blue and Black, as the band behind him channel side one of Neu! 75.

The brilliantly titled Sweey Oddysee Of A Cancer Cell T’Th’ Center Of Your Heart closes side one (or Rocket Side) which sounds like they’ve copped Billy Duffy’s guitars circa She Sells Sanctuary before galloping off like Black Sabbath at their most motorik (really!) or Will Sergeant jamming with Godspeed! You Black Emperor. This doesn’t do the song justice. Really, you need to hear this.

Just as Tommy Hall conceived Easter Everywhere as two complete halves, each side designed to be listened to on repeat, Yerself Is Steam works best on vinyl. The second side (or Harmony side) has a completely different atmosphere, more introspective and melancholy, like side two of On The Beach. Frittering is a meandering acoustic Sunday night come down of a song. Its beautiful chord progression isn’t a million miles away from the more conventional songs that would provide them with greater success on Deserters Songs, but here they just let it drift around, soothing your soul for nearly nine gorgeous minutes.

After a brief noise interlude, the twelve minute Very Sleepy Rivers closes the album. Live this would be played as part of a medley with Miles Davis’ Shhh/Peaceful, and gives you a good idea of where their heads were at. I’ve never really had a clue what this song was about, David Baker’s vocals, when he’s not whispering are very low in the mix, just another instrument. One of those songs where I’d rather leave its spooky mystery intact

This line up would only manage one more album together. David Baker would leave after Boces, and Suzanne Thorpe would leave after See You On The Other Side. The band that would record Deserters Songs, although great, were a different proposition altogether.  The genius of this record is that it sounds like it was either thrown together or meticulously planned. I suspect the latter, given the subsequent records they would go on to make. No band gets that lucky. (TT)

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Glasgow 1991
When David Baker, strolled nonchalantly through the sparse audience towards the bar, it was during the middle of a song. More specifically, it was during the middle bit of a song. Perhaps you remember the ‘middle bit’? For the uninitiated, the ‘middle bit’was the cacophonous (90 second or so) build up in the heart of the song, preceding the climax, and at the 1980s indie disco one regularly struggled to find the dance moves to fit this shapeless passage of sound. Sonic Youth were fine purveyors of the middle bit (think Expressway To Yr Skull or Silver Rocket) but by 1991 signed now to a major label, they were long past the godlike glory of their Sister and Daydream Nation albums. But Mercury Rev had stepped into fill the void and, to these ears at least. their first album remains their most satisfying. It may not have the refinement and poise of Deserters’ Songs. As their debut, it certainly had only a fraction of the audience. But it contains their original essence: meandering pulsating space rock (‘Chasing A Bee’) with some disturbingly eerie melodies (‘Frittering’, ‘Very Sleepy Rivers’) amidst the white noise. What’s more, it is one of only two album recordings to contain the mad ramblings of Mr. Baker – a true rock’n’roll eccentric. The later albums may have hit big but they missed his spooky charm. (JJ)
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