Graded on a Curve: Mercury Rev,
Yerself Is Steam

Love, people, is all around us. We’re surrounded by it. We’re choking on it, gagging on it, strangling on it. Which is why we erect barbed wire around our hearts; we don’t want it, love, to kill us. We must protect ourselves. Take defensive measures. Build a machine gun nest to gun it down before it can grab us and twist us into shapes that leave us vulnerable, defenseless, and at the whim of the one emotion that knows no mercy.

Which is where psychedelics come in. They tear down the barbed wire, jam the machine gun, and open our hearts like 24-hour drive-thru fast food outlets. And we come face to face with love, and see that it doesn’t want to strangle us after all. It just wants to open our hearts to the good that, believe it or not, is actually out there, roaming around in the horrible world.

Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit lax on hallucinogens. After all, I’m the guy who once locked himself into the bathroom of a doublewide trailer on a pig farm, because I was freaking out. But that never happens with a great psychedelic rock album. Take Mercury Rev’s 1991 debut, Yerself Is Steam. I listen to it and I can feel my heart open up like a flower. I’m a hippie and I don’t care, especially when the album comes to its fantastic ending, “Car Wash Hair.”

Perhaps best known for 1999’s excellent Deserter’s Songs, which featured cameos by The Band’s Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, Mercury Rev has come a long way from their early psychedelic blow-outs, much as their sister band The Flaming Lips have transcended their wild, acid-washed, ways. But a few songs aside, I think both bands have sacrificed something vital in the process. They sound bigger, lusher, more orchestral now, but the strangeness factor is gone; they sound like pros, not dayglo-eyed freaks, and it was their sheer weirdness that attracted me to them in the first place.

Formed in Buffalo in the late eighties, Mercury Rev’s earliest incarnation included Jonathan Donahue on silver pickup guitar and vocals, Sean Mackowiak a.k.a. Grasshopper on unafon guitar reels, Suzanne Thorpe on point red flute, Dave Fridmann on bass and majestic bellowphone, David Baker on vocals, and Jimmy Chambers on drums. As for the bellowphone, it looks like a contraption straight from the imagination of Dr. Seuss, and I can’t for the life of me tell you what unafon guitar reels are. What I can tell you is that Baker, who added a true touch of weirdness to the equation, would depart before 1995’s See You on the Other Side, and not surprisingly that album was the first to move towards the band’s later, safer, and more sedate sound.

Yerself Is Steam begins with the very trippy “Chasing a Bee,” which opens with lots of strange noises and Baker, who sings like a demented man. “As easy as it may seem,” he sings like a guru, “Remember yerself is steam” before the band kicks in with a furious assault of distorted guitar, while Thorpe provides some pretty counterpoint on the flute. And the distortion attains monstrous proportions as the song goes on, with Donahue dishing out some of the best feedback I’ve ever heard. This is one of my favorite songs ever because it delivers the goods, goddamn it, with Donahue again managing to top himself as the song reaches its apocalyptic close, background singers coming in with some gibberish while that flute plays on and on, pretty as a dawn on the Hudson River. Meanwhile, “Syringe Mouth” comes cranking out of the stereo with some seriously fuzzed-up guitar riffs, leading to the vocals, which are performed by one normal sounding human with some non-life form echoing them. This one is pure pummel, with Baker screaming, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” while the drums build a wall dividing your left brain from your right brain, and it’s welcome back, bicameral mind. It’s a total freak-out from beginning to end, and the perfect intro to the catchy “Coney Island Cyclone,” on which the vocalist promises he won’t chicken out and compares himself and his girl to Coney Island cyclones. Meanwhile Donahue delivers up lots of furious guitar while the drummer nails everything down, and the song is over before you know it.

“Blue and Black” features some seriously weird vocals by Baker, and is relatively quiet and beautiful in a strange way. While the band plays quietly, piano predominating, in the background, Baker repeats, “It’s so cold outside,” that is when he’s not uttering strange sounds, or whistling, or muttering unintelligibly, and in the great strange vocalist sweepstakes I’d put him at No. 2, ahead of Gibby Haynes but behind Al Johnson, formerly of U.S. Maple, the Jimi Hendrix of weird vocalists. Meanwhile the band continues to play that haunting melody, until the song finally ends in a brief snaggle of guitar. As for “Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell T’ Center of Your Heart,” it opens with some space noise and gradually assumes its loud and semi-orchestral form. Lots of big drum crash is followed by the band playing it fast, then slow, as intergalactic winds blow and the vocalist stays more or less buried in the mix. It finally takes off, and what it is in all but name is prog rock, which is the direction Mercury Rev would ultimately take, so that makes this a song that has actually gone back in time to let us know what Mercury Rev would mutate into in the future which is heavy, man, almost as heavy as the pure barrage of drums and guitar that carry you along in a mighty flood of endorphins, wow. That said, it’s not as good as the longer version on their Mercury Rev Live in Brixton ’92 release. That one’s wilder and woollier, a total derangement, as Arthur Rimbaud would have put it, off all the senses.

“Frittering” opens with acoustic guitars and is so, so pretty. The vocalist sounds like he’s singing from across a lake, and as the electric guitar comes in you’ll want to put your hands in the air and surrender to the sheer loveliness of the melody. And when the guitars really kick in and the vocals are suddenly in your face things get better yet, even if you can’t make out a word he’s singing. Yep, it’s a lovely thing, this song, like waking up on a bed of soft green moss in a Minnesota forest to find a moose standing by your side, but you’re not frightened because at just that moment Donahue launches into some feedback that sounds more like a blizzard than a guitar. And I don’t know what else to say about it other than it’s both dissonant and lovely, which is a trick those poseurs in Sonic Youth have rarely, if ever, been able to pull off.

“Continuous Trucks and Thunder Under a Mother’s Smile” is 40 seconds of acid humor; a beeping noise is followed by an astronaut-like voice saying, “Space control, it’s out there,” followed by “My mom is coming home,” which is accompanied by mucho feedback. As for “Very Sleepy Rivers,” it’s a long and slow exploration into inner space, what with the majestic bellowphone and a guitar in the distance and Baker muttering under his breath. But slowly the song takes shape, with Baker repeating “Very sleepy river” over and over, that is when he’s not making agonized and creepy noises with his mouth hole. It’s supposedly about a serial killer and I can hear it, in Baker’s garbled vocals and that foreboding guitar and in the way the song is static but slowly, very slowly, builds, in the same way a serial killer’s need to kill builds, and before you know it you’re immersed in that river, with Baker ululating and the guitar playing an echo-laden figure, that is when the song isn’t crashing along, thanks to the drums, like a river at high ebb due to a recent rainfall. It’s a great slow drone of a song, with climaxes interspersed throughout, during which Baker is apt to say things like, “I believe in coming unglued” and “writhing like a whore” and then it ends and following a long silence the band breaks into the brilliant hidden track “Car Wash Hair,” on which Dean Wareham contributed vocals. It’s a slow and lovely song, with repeated phrases throughout, “Wanna ask but I just stare/Can I run my hands through your car wash hair?” being the most frequent. And then Donahue plays some fucked-up guitar and is joined by a great trumpet played by one C. Gavazzi, whoever he is. Donahue’s guitar work alone makes this one a classic; throw in that trumpet, and some lyrics about being in the van or not being in the van, and some great drumming to boot, and this one is ecstatic, the peak of your trip, the moment when it all becomes clear and you see love really does rule the planet, and all those hairies with their peace symbols were right.

Or maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this LP, like The Flaming Lips’ 1990 LP In a Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares), set a standard for psychedelia that I’ve never heard bettered. Both bands would mature in ways that I don’t like, thanks chiefly to the production of Dave Fridmann, that enemy of freakdom and all things psychedelic and sacred. I understand that most people prefer both bands’ later work, but they’re wrong. You there, you’re wrong. Sure I liked The Soft Bulletin as much as anyone, but In a Priest Driven Ambulance is a one-way ticket to nirvana, as is Yerself Is Steam. From its pun of a title to “Car Wash Hair” it’s a revelation and a treasure, and comparing it to Mercury Rev’s “The Queen of Swans,” a single released just this year, leaves me vaguely nauseous. The band I loved is barely discernible in that lush and orchestrated tune, which just goes to show you that progress is an illusion. But I’m not going to complain because I’m all about love, and the stripping away of the ego that makes real love possible, which is what good hallucinogens, or Yerself Is Steam, make possible. Peace.


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