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Music / Mercury Rev

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The band's lineup circa 1998.

Mercury Rev are a psychedelic Alternative Rock/Dream Pop/Noise Pop band from Buffalo, New York, formed in 1989. They are frequently compared to the Flaming Lips, since both bands experienced the same evolution from noisy, punky psychedelia to lushly orchestrated Baroque Pop, Jonathan Donahue was a guitarist in the Lips for a few years early in The '90s, and Dave Fridmann near-exclusively produces both bands.

Their initial lineup was as follows:

  • David Baker - vocals
  • Jonathan Donahue - guitar, vocals
  • Grasshopper (Sean Mackowiak) - guitar, clarinet
  • Dave Fridmann - bass, keyboards, Record Producer
  • Suzanne Thorpe - flute, horns
  • Jimy Chambers - drums

This lineup produced two Cult Classic albums, Yerself Is Steam (1991) and Boces (1993), which found a large audience and some chart success in the indie-rock-happy UK. The album's styles are marked by extended run-times, ragged self-production, use of Grasshopper's homemade Tettix Wave Acumulator synth, a chaotic sound that constantly shifts between poppy accessibility and freaky guitar noisescapes, Word Salad Titles and lyrics, and the interplay between Baker's deranged, low-pitched vocals and Donahue's more Jónsi sounding voice.

The lineup was plagued by instability, drug abuse and Creative Differences, and Boces (named after New York's Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) earned infamy as a particularly Troubled Production even by their Rule of Cool standards - one famous story is that either Donahue or Baker tried at one point to gouge out Grasshopper's eye with a spoon.

Baker eventually departed in 1995, and the band's next album See You on the Other Side (1995) captured the resulting transition: Baker took the noisy, confrontational side of the band's sound with him, leaving Donahue to steer the band towards a more accessible, melodic, lush Baroque Pop-influenced sound. However, See You on the Other Side sank like a brick on the UK charts and attracted no attention, leaving Donahue despondent and pushing the band into a hiatus.

Mercury Rev finally regrouped to record 1998's Deserter's Songs, which surprisingly became their most successful album in the UK and Europe, and gave them a minor hit with "Goddess on a Hiway". This convinced them not to disband, and they've continued making Baroque Pop/Psychedelic Rock albums ever since. Their lineup had also been reduced with Chambers and Thorpe leaving soon after Deserter's Songs, leaving Donahue, Grasshopper, Fridmann (who by then retired from touring to focus on his career as a producer), and new drummer/pianist Jeff Mercel. However, as of 2015, only Donahue and Grasshopper remain as official members.


  • Yerself Is Steam (1991)
  • Boces (1993)
  • See You on the Other Side (1995)
  • Deserter's Songs (1998)
  • All Is Dream (2001)note 
  • The Secret Migration (2005)
  • Snowflake Midnight and Strange Attractor (2008)
  • The Light in You (2015)

Mercury Rev provide examples of:

  • Broken Record: "Car Wash Hair", "Very Sleepy Rivers".
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: All the members, all the time.
  • Cover Version: They've covered "If You Want Me to Stay" by Sly and the Family Stone, "Shhh/Peaceful" by Miles Davis, "He Was a Friend of Mine" by Bob Dylan, "Motion Pictures" and "Philadelphia" by Neil Young, "Caroline Says Pt. II" by Lou Reed and the standard "I Only Have Eyes For You".
    • In 2019, the band released a cover of the album The Delta Sweete by Bobbie Gentry in its' entirety.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: All the members, but Grasshopper most of all.
  • Creepy Monotone: David Baker's singing on "Very Sleepy Rivers". He also pulls the Careful with That Axe.
  • Demoted to Extra:
    • Suzanne Thorpe was credited as part of the guest orchestra from All Is Dream onwards. It was generous to credit her as a band member to begin with considering that she didn't play on every song and didn't appear with the band in interviews and photo shoots.
    • David Fridmann gradually phased himself out of the band, first declining to tour with them from 1995 onwards and then quitting as bass player before 2005's The Secret Migration while continuing to produce the band's albums. However, he remained credited as the band's bass player while still a studio player, making this case an aversion.
  • Epic Rocking: "Chasing a Bee", "Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell t' th' Center of Yer Heart", "Frittering", "Very Sleepy Rivers", "Car Wash Hair", "Meth of a Rockette's Kick", "Snorry Mouth", "Empire State (Son House In Excelsis)", "Racing the Tide", "Lincoln's Eyes", "Hercules".
  • Falling Bass: "Opus 40".
  • Fun with Homophones: Despite the song title, the first line of "Goddess On A Hiway" is "Well, I got us on a highway...". Only in the last verse do they make the Lyric Swap to "She's a goddess on a highway...".
  • Hidden Track: Their previously released single "Car Wash Hair" on Yerself Is Steam (some editions list it on the back); the almost Zelda-esque orchestral experiment hidden on Deserter's Songs.
  • Idiot Ball: Fridmann stupidly wasted the band's advance on buying his mother a Bermuda vacation package, forcing them to seek assistance from Dean Wareham to record "Car Wash Hair".
  • Indecipherable Lyrics: More than half of "Very Sleepy Rivers".
  • Lighter and Softer: What they became after David Baker left.
  • Madness Mantra: "Very Sleepy Rivers".
  • Murder Ballad: In a very cryptic way, "Very Sleepy Rivers" is about a serial killer who pretends to be a normal person.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak.
  • Persona Non Grata: In a Swans-like example, during the Lollapalooza tour in 1993, they were thrown off the stage for being too loud and noisy.
  • Rouge Angles of Satin: Some of their titles are prone to this, like "Girlfren" or "Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell t' th' Center of Yer Heart".
  • Shout-Out: "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp" inverts a lyric from Flaming Lips' "Felt Good To Burn": the former has the repeated lyric "Waving goodbye, I'm not saying hello" while the latter had "I wasn't waving goodbye, I was saying hello".
  • Soprano and Gravel: In the early days, the contrast between David Baker's low-pitched mumbling and Jonathan Donahue's very high-pitched voice.
  • Step Up to the Microphone:
    • Jonathan Donahue sang a handful of songs on the first two albums before becoming full time lead vocalist after David Baker's departure.
    • Grasshopper sings lead on the Deserter's Songs track "Hudson Line"
  • Title Drop: "Chasing a Bee", for Yerself Is Steam.
  • Word Purée Title: Boces is named after the acronym of a New York vocational school system: Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Baker's specialty. Jonathan Donahue did the same at first, but seems to have shifted to more straightforward lyrics recently.
  • Word Salad Titles: Keepers like "Syringe Mouth", "Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell t' th' Center of Yer Heart" and "Continuous Trucks and Thunder Under a Mother's Smile" almost give the Flaming Lips a run for their money.