Mercury Rev and special friends tune into Woodstock space rock.
Harmony Rockets ★★★★ Lachesis/Clotho/Atropos TOMPKINS SQUARE. CD/DL/LP
FIFTY YEARS after Music From Big Pink, and 20 from Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, the lure of Woodstock as a bucolic retreat remains potent. These days, the local atmosphere is often more genteel than outlaw, as well-heeled ex-hippies queue alongside prints of Dylan and The Band in artisanal bakeries. But still, a certain maverick spirit survives, which comes to the fore on a beatific new set from the Harmony Rockets. When Jonathan Donahue and Sean ‘Grasshopper’ Mackowiak left New York after the failure of Mercury Rev’s third album, See You On The Other Side (1995), they also mostly abandoned the freestyle weirdness that had invigorated much of their early work. From Deserter’s Songs onwards, Mercury Rev’s music has tended towards a Disneyfication of the American wilderness; at its best conjuring chamber rock wonder, at its worst pirouetting into whimsy. Covertly, though, Donahue and Grasshopper have continued to dabble in more outré experiments, via the Harmony Rockets project begun in 1995. The past decade has seen two low-key sets, The Crawling Journey Of The Serpents Starry Night and Angels Are Spirits, Flames Of Fire, which reconnect with the billowing space rock that illuminated those early Mercury Rev albums. Lachesis/Clotho/Atropos is a much more auspicious release, planting that adventurous imperative squarely into the Catskills ecosystem. Donahue and Grasshopper’s fellow travellers are critical: Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley; Wilco’s guitarist Nels Cline; Woodstock luthier Martin Keith on bass, and Peter Walker on acoustic guitar. Walker is especially well versed in the cosmic potentialities of roots music, having been a ’60s fellow traveller of John Fahey, Karen Dalton’s confidant and, for a time, the “Musical Director” of Dr Timothy Leary’s LSD events. The line-up gel beautifully on these three long instrumentals, named after the Greek fates. Lachesis begins with the drones of a morning raga, Walker doodling impressionistically, while Grasshopper and Cline warm up in the left and right channels respectively. Shelley kicks in with his evolved Dinger beat, but the piece retains a misty imprecision, like an ambient reading of the Grateful Dead’s Dark Star. Clotho has greater urgency, Cline’s needling lead highlighting an affinity with Wilco’s motorik showstopper, Spiders (Kidsmoke). But it’s Atropos where Walker really shines, his tangled flamenco strums intertwining with Cline’s empathetic jazz tones and Grasshopper’s delicate phasing. It’s here, too, that a way forward for Mercury Rev presents itself. If Donahue and Grasshopper can channel more of this antic creativity into their mainstream work, then Mercury Rev’s records might yet recapture the thrills of the ’90s; a new sylvan psychedelia to match the madness of Yerself Is Steam.
Harmony Rockets (from left) Jonathan Donahue, Jesse Chandler, Peter Walker, Martin Keith, Grasshopper, Steve Shelley, Nels Cline.