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Pop: High revs, poor handling

NEARLY A decade after their initial emergence, bizarrely supporting an itinerant Bob Dylan, Mercury Rev's lush, fragile, and rather lovely new album, Deserter's Songs, actually features Garth Hudson and Levon Helm from Dylan cohorts, The Band. Maybe living in bucolic Woodstock, New York gives it that relaxed feel, but tonight's performance is anything but fragile. Six non-descript, skinny young men take the stage, two of them on keyboards, and make little attempt at recreating the subtle nuances of the record they're ostensibly here to promote.

The Rev's ability to endlessly embellish simple songs, much like their British counterparts, Spiritualized, has helped them sustain a healthy following through an apparently endless series of line-up changes and reported internal conflicts. Currently based around a core of singer/guitarist, Jonathan Donahue, and hyperactive lead guitarist, Grasshopper, Mercury Rev are now an increasingly straightforward rock band, albeit a very good one. Their previously random nature has been replaced by a creeping traditionalism, much like their musical forefathers, as Sixties experimentalism moved to the country in the early Seventies. Once psychedelic like drugs, they're now psychedelic like advertising. Fans may miss the flute player. Honestly.

They still delight though. Old favourites such as "Car Wash Hair" manage to fuse cheesy synth whines, "Kashmir" style grandeur, and country twanging in the same song, while new songs such as "Goddess On The Highway" are downright irresistible. Donahue's customary whine is replaced by an astonishingly accurate take on John Lennon on a loving cover of the Plastic Ono Band's "Isolation". Only a pointless thrash through Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer", perennially beloved by soundchecking bands due to its three chord simplicity, mars the set.

If Mercury Rev are akin to taking a trip via country roads - you don't know just how long it'll take to get there, but the journey is most of the fun - then Bob Mould's performance is strictly straight down the Interstate. This veteran of the Punk Rock Wars has announced that this tour will be his last with a full electric set-up, a pity in view of his endlessly deft and powerful guitar playing. Unfortunately, Mould and his extremely competent band fail to delve far into his extensive back catalogue.

First finding acclaim in the magnificent Husker Du, one of the finest American groups of the Eighties and the grunge prototype for Nirvana's canny dynamics and pop melodies, Mould then succeeded with the less inspired Sugar. But his solo work has always seemed to lack contrast: austerely Calvinist compared to Mercury Rev's baroque twiddlings, something tonight's excellent sounding but drab set proved. A crushing Zeppelin-esque encore might have appealed to Robert Plant, spotted at the bar, but as Mould drowned another mournful melody under a wall of sound, one couldn't help but wonder whatever happened to that other folk-tinged, college radio favourite that Warners signed as a replacement for the faltering Husker Du. Where are REM now?