Buffalo’s Mercury Rev have remixed and released an instrumental edition of their seminal album Deserter’s Songs. Their press release gives no clear reason for this, other than the fact that the album was great. It was released around 13 years ago, so this isn’t some kind of magic-number anniversary year. It could be an attempt to gain some traction on the market with their new label, Excelsior Melodies. Mercury Rev might also have a small desire to be taken seriously as an instrumental outfit, or one capable of good instrumental music, as 2008’s digital download Strange Attractor demonstrated. Whatever the reason, and like it or not, Mercury Rev’s discography is now saddled with a pleasant yet redundant release. Deserter’s Songs is well loved by many – a great deal of the targeted demographic can probably already (accurately) imagine the final mix in their heads. Trying to sell it to anyone who doesn’t own or operate a karaoke bar is kind of risky.
If you follow indie rock and/or read Pitchfork obsessively, then you already know the story; Mercury Rev’s early albums sounded like noise-rock secretly in search of a laugh. In 1998, they surprised everyone, probably even themselves, with a delicate album that landed them on numerous best-of lists for that year. Their new sound was big, cinematic, unabashedly produced and polished. Their songs dovetailed perfectly with a sense of hypnosis, effectively bridging that tricky gap between the arty and the accessible. You could name drop Deserter’s Songs alongside something like OK Computer in music geek conversations and no one would try to hide a laugh. These guys had arrived.
Skip ahead to 2011, and we take Jonathan Donahue’s vocals out of the mix. Star producer and original bassist David Fridmann (of numerous Flaming Lips credits) remixed every song specifically for this instrumental edition with the exception of “Goddess on a Hiway”, which was remixed by Peter Katis (Interpol and The National). As good as these guys are at their jobs, there is no escaping the fact that Deserter’s Songs was not conceived as an instrumental album. Deserter’s Songs Instrumental sounds like an afterthought, and probably because it is. Without the strained drama of Donahue’s voice, the songs go a long way to becoming – dare I say it – background music.
But since this is such a high quality album to begin with, we owe it to ourselves to seek out the silver lining – concentrating on what is there rather than what is not. Fridmann’s kitchen-sink approach has guaranteed that every weird thing that these guys did is now floating to the surface. This includes the mellotron that sounds like a saw in “Pick Up If You’re There”, Jimy Chambers’ jumpy clavinet and harpsichord in “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp” (which retains a few vocal tracks here), and the many textures created by flautist Suzanne Thorpe and multi-reedist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackiowiak. It’s intriguing how much stuff Fridmann and the band crammed into the sound without making it sound so cluttered, though these instrumentals test can their luck from time to time.
Deserter’s Songs is rich material. Deserter’s Songs adds mystery to but takes richness away from the original music. These are the kinds of things that can make great bands so infuriating; the paradoxes within just a few bars of music. “Goddess on a Hiway” will still turn heads, even on this new instrumental edition. But there’s still no way you’ll trade it in for the original version. Thirteen years from now, no one will be saying “wow, that instrumental mix of Deserter’s Songs totally blew me away!”