Mercury Rev – The Secret Migration: Deluxe Edition (Cherry Red)

Secret Migration: Deluxe Edition

Remember when the seven-disc Complete Funhouse Studio Sessions came out back in 1999? As far as I know, it was the first single album reissued with multiple discs of bonus material, and it seemed like complete overkill, even for one of the greatest albums of all time. Twenty-one years, and countless deluxe editions later, the reissue game has gotten so far out of control that The Secret Migration, an album not even particularly well loved by Mercury Rev fans, is getting the five-disc super-size treatment. 

When it was first released in 2005 critics and fans hoped The Secret Migration would continue to build on the success of Deserter’s Songs and All Is Dream. Instead, the album they got replaced the most interesting parts of Mercury Rev’s core sound with something far more generic and bland. “Secret For A Song” opened the album with a brief glimmer of hope. It’s catchy, dramatic, and it’s got a killer chorus that could have fit nicely on any of the band’s best albums. If there’s one song from The Secret Migration you still want to hear them play live fifteen years later, it’s this one. “Across Your Ocean” follows with the opening line “And where we go from here/Is anybody’s guess,” which is prescient because it’s the point where the album starts to go off the rails. Sure, Mercury Rev had shed the drug-damaged experimentation of the early-’90s a long time ago, but songs like “Black Forest (Lorelei)” are the opposite extreme – aggressively unadventurous. Jonathan Donahue’s lyrics don’t help matters either. He had a long track record of wearing his emotions on his sleeve well before The Secret Migration, unabashedly exploring “nice” topics like romance and feelings of nostalgia for youth, but there was always an undercurrent of complexity that made it cool. Here his lyrics just deliver cringes of softness and naivety. Dragging John Lennon into this for a cheap analogy, if Deserter’s Songs and All Is Dream were Mercury Rev’s Imagine and Plastic Ono Band, then The Secret Migration was their “Beautiful Boy.” Mercury Rev are still sporadically active today, having made better albums (The Light In You) and worse ones (Snowflake Midnight) since The Secret Migration, yet they’ve never recaptured the momentum they had prior to The Secret Migration.

This new five-disc hardcover mini-book version of the album offers a lot of extras. While the less than stellar album-proper may have you doubting whether you need to hear the fourteen B-sides and outtakes that DIDN’T make the album, a cover of The Replacements’ “Androgynous” that plays to the band’s strengths and is worth hearing. A disc of demo recordings gives you stripped-down performances which are sometimes preferable to what made the album, though the sound quality makes this disc something you won’t revisit often. There’s a live disc compiled from various 2004/5 tour stops which repeats most of the album’s track-list without adding anything new to the studio versions. Lastly, there’s Hello Blackbird, the band’s soundtrack to the film Bye Bye Blackbird, which I’ve already reviewed as a standalone LP release over here.

Mercury Rev – Hello Blackbird (Cherry Red)

Mercury Rev - Hello Blackbird - Music

By adorning their music with an array of ornamental flutes, clarinets, bowed saws, and the like, Mercury Rev have always been a strong choice for film soundtrack work. They’ve even recorded albums on 35MM film, or so their album artwork tells me. Yet, somehow they never made the obvious jump to film soundtracks until 2005 when they recorded Hello Blackbird, the score to Bye Bye Blackbird, a rarely seen French feature about circus life. I can’t vouch for whether or not the film is any good (it currently holds a dismal 5.8 score at IMDB, so beware), but the soundtrack is a mix of circus music and other flights of instrumental fancy. If you’re familiar with Mercury Rev, you should be able to pick out sounds and ideas from their better known song-based work, but here they exist free from the constraints of lyrics and conventional song structure. It’s a very dreamlike collection of cues and accompanying themes, and there’s even an arrangement of a Chopin tune (“Piano Sonata No. 2 in Bb Minor, Op. 35 Mvt. 2” for all the classical heads out there). The soundtrack’s one brief vocal track, “Simply Because,” comes at the very end and is actually sung by a guest vocalist, Bonnie Kate Anthony. Obviously Hell Blackbird is far enough afield from the usual Mercury Rev album that not everyone who picked up Deserter’s Songs or See You On The Other Side will be interested in it, but if you’ve happily followed acts like Tindersticks or Nick Cave into the world of film soundtracks, there’s no reason you can’t go there with Mercury Rev too.

This is the first time Hello Blackbird has been available on vinyl (plans for an LP in 2006 never got past the test pressing phase), and it’s a limited edition run of 1,000 copies. The vinyl is marble-blue, which looks great but also has a decent amount of static and pops which are especially evident in the silence (or lack thereof) between tracks. 

Mercury Rev – Snowflake Midnight (Yep Roc Records)

Bad news, Mercury Rev fans: Snowflake Midnight is a complete disaster and a blight on their discography. I can understand how the lukewarm reception for 2005’s The Secret Migration – which was weak, but not terrible – could cause the band to rethink their direction, but Snowflake Midnight’s confused mix of avant-garde song structures and studio-bound electronica is the not the answer. Yes, the same band that was once kicked off-stage at Lollapalooza for being too loud, now writes songs based on computer programming and “random note generators” instead of guitars; all of which would be fine if the results were any good, but none of these nine songs has a hook, melody, sound, lyric, or vocal worth remembering. While they probably hoped to recapture some of the oddball spontaneity of their early records, what they’ve achieved is a potentially career-halting collection of ugly sounds, lame new-age lyrics, and over-stuffed beats. It’s hard to comprehend how the same band that made 1998’s classic Deserter Songs can sound so god-awful. The band are also releasing an eleven-song album called Strange Attractor as a free download on the day Snowflake Midnight comes out. If it sounds anything like Snowflake Midnight then the price is right.