It’s always impossible to pin a date on these things, but somewhere in the time line of alternative rock, the scruffy set’s preoccupation with guitar noise as an end itself (following the likes of Sonic Youth in the U.S. and Jesus and Mary Chain in the U.K.) turned into an obsession with the even further-flung possibilities of the recording studio. At some point, Pet Sounds, Meddle, and Scott Walker’s Scott 4 (or is it Scott 2? Sorry, I’m not British) became indie-rock touchstones to rival Kick Out the Jams, White Light/White Heat, and Funhouse. Most likely, it was the influence of techno, ambient, and hip-hop that opened punk’s ears to symphonic pop.
Buffalo’s Mercury Rev and England’s Spiritualized (I’d include Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, and the whole Elephant 6 contingent here as well) are punks, but they’re studio punks: They achieve their punk effects with the buzz and howl of guitars, but also with mellotrons, vintage Moogs, and a no doubt impressive array of outboard effects. The late rock critic Robert Palmer penned the memorable phrase “Church of the Sonic Guitar”; Mercury Rev and Spiritualized choose instead to worship at the “Temple of the 32-Channel Mixing Board with Built-in Reverb and 4-Band EQ.”
The Rev-heads and Spiritualized fans I’ve smoked joints and/or attended Sunday Mass with over the years like to remark on how “trippy” these bands are, sometimes even inadvertently commingling semi-technical with quasi-religious terminology: Phrases like awe-inspiring dynamics and sublime textures aren’t uncommon descriptions among their followers. But like some of this music in question, these terms, though evocative, are also rather vague. What, for instance, makes a texture “sublime”? Indeed, what is a musical texture? Is that something you can touch? I could contemplate these perplexities forever, but with new albums from both groups crowding up my Discman, it’s probably just better to lay down all thoughts and surrender to the vague.
Of the two groups, Mercury Rev have charted a more erratic course, from their beginnings as a “shambolic” art-noise outfit on 1991’s Yerself Is Steam (Pavement with wilder ideas and lesser songs, basically) to their more recent incarnation as a baroque, spacey, lounge-folk act. 1998’s Deserter’s Songs and the new All Is Dream celebrate the loopier strains of “soft” pop: Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Eno, Esquivel, even Neil Young. The guitars on these records are generally just padding for multiple layers of pianos, mellotrons, Theremins, strings, and horns, though it’s not the cluttered mess you might expect. Legendary producer and arranger Jack Nitzche was slated to oversee All Is Dream before his untimely death a year ago, but in fact, the group already have a secret weapon of their own in non-touring bassist and producer Dave Fridmann, who also set the controls for the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin. On Dream, Fridmann proves himself more than capable of doing what they probably wanted Nitzche for anyway: that is, to arrange a string part so momentous—especially in the opening track, “The Dark Is Rising”—it could jolt the planet off its axis.
Like Rubber Soul and Revolver, or Bowie’s Low and Heroes, Deserter’s Songs and All Is Dream function as bookends rather than as separate works, though the latter, recorded under the cloud of Nitzche’s absence, does strike a few too many morose chords. Only “A Drop in Time” and “Nite and Fog” hint at the playfulness of spirit that dominated Deserter’s Songs. I’ve got three words for these guys: “Sloop John B.”
Let It Come Down is Spiritualized’s latest aural triumph, and it’s also, in many ways, the culmination of the musical and lyrical themes leader (and admitted ex-drug-fiend) Jason Pierce has been pursuing ever since his days as a cofounder of Spacemen 3 in the early ’80s. In truth, half of Let It Come Down is just sludgy crap, but the half of the chalice that’s full truly runneth over into the realm of, um, the awe-inspiring. If not the sublime.
Pierce has always been a terrific balladeer, though not in the usual sense of the word. Slow, psychedelic numbers like 1997’s “Stay With Me” or 1995’s “Spread Your Wings,” both incredibly beautiful works, sound more like mantras than songs, with lyrics serving as embellishments (rather than foreground) to the overall mood. On the other hand, Pierce has never played a very convincing version of hard rock. His English blues routine has always sounded full of lead—minus the Zeppelin—while his fixation on Stooges drone has fared only marginally better. Let It Come Down features his first truly immortal hard rocker—a trashy Paul Revere & the Raiders knockoff called “The Twelve Steps,” which, to the accompaniment of sirens and fast guitars, explains how hard it is to be drug free when the drugs are always free.
The real core of this album, however, is the trilogy of gospel workouts: “Lord Can You Hear Me,” “Stop Your Cryin’,” and the 10-minute-plus “Won’t Get to Heaven.” The most gratifying of these is “Lord Can You Hear Me,” which is actually a reworking of an early Spacemen 3 ballad. In its previous version (featured on 1989’s Playing With Fire), it came off as a pretty, if somewhat feeble, attempt to re-make the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus”—itself a pretty, if somewhat feeble, song of redemption. But both “Jesus” and the first “Lord Can You Hear Me” are such muted whispers, it’s highly doubtful that their putative subject has heard either. No, if you want to reach the ears of the Lord, you need massive gospel choirs, and to this end, Pierce brings dozens of vocalists into the studio to trump his and His cause.
White rock’s (rare) incorporation of gospel choirs tends to be—Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” to the contrary—mawkish and a little corny. When U2, for instance, remade “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on Rattle and Hum, you could hear them “appropriating gospel”; thus, there was a whole lotta holy rolling down the aisles and under the pews, which only served to show how at odds the two camps were. In “Lord Can You Hear Me,” Pierce utilizes the choir merely to enhance his group’s fondness for drone. There’s no melisma from the throng of voices here—everyone involved sticks to the simple melody line—and no diva jumps in front to grab the spotlight. So all the impact comes through in sheer force of numbers, hence volume. The result is an almost blinding example of white noise.
On the last Spiritualized tour, Pierce added a gospel choir for, among other things, a cover version of the Edwin Hawkins Singers’s 1969 hit, “Oh Happy Day” (captured on Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997, better known as The Judas Concert). There he used the choirs in a slightly more traditional way, and as a partly tongue-in-cheek forgiveness move (confession for all those ingestibles, perhaps?), it was still surprisingly convincing. In “Lord Can You Hear Me,” though, Spiritualized’s achievement is much braver, and closer to what the Stones achieved with the London Bach Choir on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”; it intensifies their rock. Even more so than “The Twelve Steps,” “Lord Can You Hear Me” goes a long way toward atoning for Pierce’s previous hard-rock sins. Listening to it may or may not cleanse your soul, but it sure is a damn good way to test your speakers.