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Mercury Rev - Snowflake Midnight

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Artist: Mercury Rev

Album: Snowflake Midnight

Label: Yep Roc

Review date: Nov. 13, 2008

Over the years, Mercury Rev have repeatedly asked their fans to follow them around some unexpected corners into new neighborhoods. Certainly, 1998’s epic Deserter’s Songs wasn’t an album anyone saw coming. Its gorgeous melancholy, offered within some hybrid form of experimental Americana, was far from the band’s earlier psychedelia. The album deserved its accolades, but following that landmark, Mercury Rev fans found themselves sadly adrift in albums seemingly more concerned with form than substance. All is Dream and Secret Migration had their occasional heights, but all too often the songs themselves were lost, like a child dressed in fancy clothing, too ill-fitting and uncomfortable to seem natural.

With Snowflake Midnight, Mercury Rev have apparently made a concerted effort to once again turn a corner, this time by embracing technology and placing their romantic notions at the tender mercies of digital manipulation. Given the almost aggressively analog nature of Deserter’s Songs, it’s unexpected to hear Mercury Rev’s stylings take on a sound more akin to the likes of M83. While the results could of course have been ugly in the extreme, it’s actually a welcome shift.

Since the overtly dark Deserter’s Songs, vocalist Jonathan Donahue has generally presented an "up with people" kind of hippy sensibility in his lyrics, and Snowflake Midnight is no exception. Referencing everything from flowers and squirrels, butterfly wings and raindrops, it’s not even surprising to find the album artwork displaying bunnies and cats. (Although the shadowy cover shot might be more Watership Down than Peter Rabbit, I suppose.)

From the first song, "Snowflake in a Hot World," which is the closest thing we’ve got to a title track, Donahue offers a paean to believing in oneself via the uniqueness of snowflakes. The music opens with burbling electronics and echoing piano chords, drenched in production that lends little accents, tweaks, and layers - nearly every sound is augmented and feels slightly unreal. The result is a little bit like watching a film through a prism. Throughout the album, every sound and note is a little suspect, and it’s impossible to tell if anything other than the vocals ever existed outside a computer; and if it did, how much it resembled what you’re hearing.

This unreality isn’t necessarily a problem, but what problems there are on the album manifest because of it. The lushness of "Butterfly’s Wing" and the tinkling electronics of "Faraway From Cars" are actually quite nice, and the augmented drum hits in the powerful pinnacle of "People Are So Unpredictable" are terrific. But all too often the music comes across like a Project Runway cast-off: just too much and all over the place. It’s only the cohesive ideas of an experienced group that keeps the album hanging together.

The twin centers of the album, "Runaway Raindrop" and "Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower," both have their strengths, but at the same time fall prey to the album’s central difficulty. The former is based on a lightweight, repeating electronic motif and an oddly flatulent synth rhythm. The opening vocal is nice, but the middle lays flat against a spoken-word verse that badly disrupts the feel of the song. A brief return to original form, followed by a lackluster outro, gives the unavoidable feeling that the song’s basic idea wasn’t strong enough. "Dream" is the album’s longest song, and thus ends up feeling like its anchor. What should have been a foundation turned out to be dead weight.

Floating through a variety of sounds and structures - or lack thereof - the song is a microcosm of the album itself. Full of small ideas, it leaves the feeling, after eight minutes, that nobody quite knew where it was supposed to go. The song has an appealing core despite its meanderings, and when the basic song returns after journeying, it’s a nice feeling. The album’s strongest songs are telling: they’re the opener and the closer, "A Squirrel and I.” The latter is also the most straightforward. It revels in sonic trickery like the rest, but has a strong foundation that never gets lost.

Ultimately, this album and its freely downloadable companion Strange Attractor (a set of pleasant instrumental tracks) may well turn out to represent experimentation that leads Mercury Rev to great things next time around, once they’ve mastered the new tools available to them. As it stands here, it too often feels as if the tools mastered them.

By Mason Jones

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