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Pop: Backwards into the future

From Sinatra to Bartok via Pet Sounds, Mercury Rev are only searching for the `timeless song'.
The enigmatic opening track to Mercury Rev's fourth album, Deserter's Songs, draws to a close. "How does that old song go?" muses the singer and principal songwriter, Jonathan Donahue. The question makes a fitting motto for an album that draws much of its power from the past, though without slipping into the kind of retro-rock that petrifies popular music at an earlier stage of its development.

Instead, Donahue and his band draw on half-remembered snatches of melody, some dating from before the dawn of rock, and arrangements that try to bridge the gaps between the various strains making up American music, from roots forms such as jazz and blues, through pop and rock, to classical composers such as Copland and Ives. It's not the original style or sound that interests them so much as the processes of erosion and recollection that colour their impressions of such music.

"My mother used to listen to a lot of American and European popular standards, from Sinatra to Bartok," says Donahue, "so when I was a child that was embedded in my brain, and I spent most of my teenage years trying to rebel against that sort of music. But now I half-remember certain feelings I used to have about that music when I was five, six or seven, and a lot of these melodies are based on those half-remembered impressions."

This Proustian approach marks a new direction for a group who, until this album, were renowned more for their restless avant-garde approach. On previous Mercury Rev albums, the pop tunes were often overwhelmed by a surge of psychedelic noise, an exciting but perilous strategy that elevated some tracks to a higher level, but dashed others on the rocks of free- form chaos. At one concert at London's Royal Albert Hall, they suspended three guitars above the stage and mixed the resulting resonant noise into the band's sound. It was, they now concede, not their best gig, but at least it was different.

So is Deserter's Songs, despite its comparative calm and order. Donahue describes this album as being "the eye of the storm", a position attainable only by way of their earlier experiments. "On this one we've stripped a lot of things away and just tried to be a bit more focused and coherent in what we were trying to achieve," he says. "Within each song there are still two or three different streams of consciousness going on, so at times it may seem as if there are several different songs playing at once; but we've tried to make them less competitive with each other than they might have been in the past."

Much of the album's wistful, haunting character derives from arrangements that blend the synthetic string sounds of the Mellotron and the Chamberlin - the former mellow and rounded, the latter higher and reedier - with live strings, resulting in a uniquely lustrous, shimmering texture.

"And on a lot of things," adds Donahue, "the strings are played backwards, to get an ethereal feel that is not necessarily common to most string arrangements."

This, apparently, is common practice in the Rev recording method: "One of our tests for how well a song is developing is to play it backwards, and if it sounds interesting backwards as well as forwards, that's generally a good sign."

With Donahue's reedy, vulnerable voice recounting his impressions of a troubled period in the band's career, his acknowledgement of their outsider status, and his search for emotional stability, the results are like Pet Sounds with Neil Young on vocals, an impression that is accentuated by the high, wheedling sound of the bowed saw that threads through several of the songs like a more organic cousin of the Theremin in "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and "Good Vibrations".

"I think it's my favourite instrument of all, hands down," says Donahue of the bowed saw. "We've used Theremins in the past, but Theremins always sound so cold and electronic to me. Apart from Clara Rockmore - a close friend of Leon Theremin, who used to do concerts with classical orchestras at Carnegie Hall - I haven't heard anyone who's played the Theremin with feeling, and the bowed saw just has a more organic quality that comes closest to the female voice, which in my opinion is the greatest instrument of all. We also used [the Rev keyboardist] Dave Fridmann's wife Mary, who's a soprano and can hit the kinds of notes I didn't think were humanly possible."

A further intriguing element is added to the album by the presence of the group's Catskill neighbours Levon Helm and Garth Hudson from The Band, forerunners of Mercury Rev in the way they, too, played with the American musical vernacular. It was, Donahue recalls, a happy meeting of minds: "We got along so well with Levon and Garth, probably because we share a lot of the same influences - we spent less time playing than we did talking, about old jazz standards and the polkas which Garth loves. It made a lot more sense to us than to certain people around us - they'd say, `Why would you be working with Levon and Garth when you guys are an American avant-garde group?' But we never thought of ourselves as experimental or avant-garde, we were just pursuing the timeless song, as they were; that's why it seemed to gel so well."

The only other group with which Mercury Rev have collaborated is The Chemical Brothers, fellow scramblers of the musical vernacular, and big fans of the Rev. Having been invited to contribute to the Chemicals' "Private Psychedelic Reel" - the furthest extension thus far of Tom & Ed's sound- sculpture - the favour has been returned with a remix of the new album's "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp", which Donahue describes as "quite something - they took a lot of the things that we do, and they screwed with them, all right!"

This current position - sort of the missing link between The Chemical Brothers and The Band - may finally afford Mercury Rev the success they have studiously avoided so far. Donahue points to a couple of phrases from the song "The Funny Bird" to illustrate their attitude: "farewell golden ring", he says, refers to their rejection of the brass ring of commercial success, while "farewell golden sound" reflects his own alienation from much contemporary rock and pop music. "I didn't think that people were looking back and remembering some of the great music that had been made," he explains. "A lot of groups seemed to be trying to escape history, rather than learn from it."

Deserter's Songs is out now on V2 Records