All Is Dream
A couple of years ago, I went to see one of my favorite songwriters, Jason Falkner, play an opening set at a club in Washington, DC. He was opening for Mercury Rev, and I was curious to stick around after Falkner’s set to see what all the fuss was about, having read a good deal of critical praise for the Buffalo band’s record, Deserter’s Songs. When Rev took the stage amidst a light show that seemed well out of proportion with the normally no frills club, I immediately felt overwhelmed. I ended up leaving early that evening, but I made a promise to further check out this band so I wouldn’t feel quite so out of my element the next time around.
But listening to the band’s latest creation, All Is Dream, a similar “deer in the klieg lights” feeling washes over me. This is a larger than life, theatrical record that still manages to take the listener to dark corners of the soul. Dreams and reality intertwine as do light music and palpable sadness, vulnerable innocence and paranoid acid trip visions.
A sweeping and crashing, James Bond-like orchestral theme gives way to a delicate piano and strings ballad on the opening “The Dark is Rising.” “I have my suspicions/When th’ stars are in position/All will be revealed,” Jonathan Donahue sings in a high little Neil Young-like voice (the band also includes clarinetist/guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak, drummer Jeff Mercel, and — at least on record — bassist/producer Dave Fridmann). Donahue goes even higher to hit the notes on “Chains,” a spooky number with an epic grandeur. “Lincoln’s Eyes” is creepy but childlike, with its nightmare visions just this side of Pink Floyd. He sings of “fangs as long as neckties” and offers these lines: “What appears like an angel/Stabs like a dagger/Fills you with lite/An’ bleeds you of matter.”
Things do lighten up a bit, surprisingly, on a track called “Nite And Fog.” It’s a fairly straightforward pop song about love gone wrong that at least seems based on this planet. Although Donahue’s vocals sound reasonably sane as well, he does sing: “Vampires want darkness/Monsters want souls/Spiders want corners/But you want it all.”
The pretty but a bit too precious “A Drop in Time” does include this great line: “But I was caught like a fleeting thought/Stuck inside of Leonard Cohen’s mind.”
On tracks like “Tides of the Moon” and the piano ballad “Spiders And Flies,” Mercury Rev sound most like kindred spirits (and occasional collaborators) The Flaming Lips. “You’re My Queen” on the other hand reminds me of the Australian band The Church.
The final track “Hercules” concludes the record on an impressive note. It evolves from an acoustic ballad into a full-blown rocker that puts me in mind of Zeppelin or perhaps The Stones. And although it bears some of the hallmarks of prog rock, it doesn’t quite reach the same level of pomposity and heavy-handedness of the worst of that genre.
But the record’s best track may be “Little Rhymes,” with its pretty pedal steel that boosts the song’s melodic quotient. Donahue sings, “An’ when I’m alone an’ scared/I think up little rhymes/They would make no sense to you/But I make them all th’ time.”
All Is Dream makes a lot of sense to me, and its rhymes and rhythms explore some fascinating territory. Now I see what all the fuss was about. But I’m still overwhelmed.