MERCURY REV--YERSELF IS STEAM (1991)
1. Chasing a Bee; 2. Syringe Mouth; 3. Coney Island Cyclone; 4. Blue and Black; 5. Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell t' th' Center of Yer Heart; 6. Frittering; 7. Continuous Trucks and Thunder Under a Mother's Smile; 8. Very Sleepy Rivers; 9. Car Wash Hair (The Bee's Chasing Me)
Best Song: CHASING A BEE
Buffalo, New York's Mercury Rev burst into the underground scene in 1991 with this spectacular debut album, helped in certain circles in no small part due to Jonathan Donahue's association with The Flaming Lips. Fans of the Lips albums he played on (In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Hit to Death in the Future Head) should check this album out for more of the same batshit insane guitar noise that was all over those classics. Bassist Dave Fridmann also produces both bands. However, don't go into this thinking it's just a retread of those Lips albums, though, because Rev frontman David Baker could not be more different from Wayne Coyne--while Coyne could unironically cover "What a Wonderful World" at the end of Priest and make it sound sincere, here Baker sounds like he's one cross-eyed look away from shooting up a public place and get carted off to a psych ward, where he can mutter on about very sleepy rivers all day. His history with the band brings to mind obvious Syd Barrett comparisons--so obvious I was actually mildly surprised to learn that he is apparently perfectly sane. The craziness is only enhanced by the unhinged guitar playing of Donahue and lead guitarist Grasshopper, both of whom largely eschew traditional playing in order to make a fuckload of feedback noise throughout the album (while Grasshopper would eventually take over most of the guitar duties, here their roles were apparently more or less equal and I have no idea who plays which parts). This could become a giant mess, but fortunately the two men really are masters of their craft--all their noise manages to stay melodic and interesting, and always serves a purpose to the song rather than being noise for the sake of noise. Fridmann and drummer Jimy Chambers hold down the fort nicely, not really drawing attention to themselves positively or negatively, and even though there's supposedly enough flute on here to warrant its own member (Suzanne Thorpe), I'd be hardpressed to actually tell you where any of it is. Okay, there's a little at the end of "Chasing a Bee," but still...
So, the band clearly has an interesting sound, but that wouldn't really be worth much if they couldn't write good songs, and fortunately, the can. "Chasing a Bee" is easily one of my favorite debut album openers by a band, as the group lays down a solid foundation for Baker's deranged mutterings in the verses before building up the intensity while he belts out the chorus. Now, the lyrics don't seem to mean anything in particular, but they're still quite evocative--I can picture this guy muttering to himself inside his padded cell. Look, I may be missing the point by harping on Baker's perceived insanity here, but that's just the impression this album leaves on me and I find it absolutely fascinating. Baker is at his most unhinged on the penultimate "Very Sleepy Rivers," which has a fantastic coda of Baker repeating the title like a mantra (it's supposedly about a serial killer trying to keep himself sane), and "Frittering" has some great instrumental interplay to go along with the ravings. "Syringe Mouth," "Blue and Black," and "Sweet Oddysee…" (sic) are all cut from the same mold, and even if they're a little less great I still enjoy them. Admittedly, "Continuous Trucks…" is a complete waste of tape, but since it's less than a minute it doesn't hang around long enough to piss me off or anything.
Donahue also sings a couple of the songs here, and both of them are fantastic. Now, Jonathan's voice is quite a bit different--it's much higher, and while he would occasionally get annoying on later albums after taking over lead vocals full time, here he provides a nice counterbalance. "Coney Island Cyclone" boasts the closest thing to a normal riff on the album, and makes for a nice, short, comparatively normal pop song to keep proceedings from getting too crazy, and I absolutely love the closing "Car Wash Hair," which is dangerously close to knocking "Chasing a Bee" from the top spot. Great pop chorus on that one--no wonder it was released as the single. While I was a bit put off by this album the first time I heard it, it's definitely worth the time to get into, and is one of my favorite debut albums. The band would have a hard time topping this one in their career (the one time they would is so different in style that it's hard to even compare the two albums), and is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in early-90s underground rock.