Mercury Rev are known now for their melancholy orchestral pop and ye olde rock'n'rolle. But they had a very different sound in their debut album: 1991's "Yerself Is Steam," a sound dominated by ex-member David Baker. Don't expect the rough sweetness of their second album...
This is a far less appealing album, and far set apart from the sound of every album that came after it. Thick waves of fuzzy guitar and rough synth overwhelm the title track, and obscure all lines but the ominous "Remember that yerself... is... steam!" The resulting dark pop song is strangely compelling, in a weird psychedelic manner.
Unfortunately, it gets old by the fifth time you hear it. Only a few songs really deviate from that fuzzy, disconnected sound, cycling around until the songs blur together. The melodies of half the songs sound alike unless you listen to them several times, and many of them have unmelodious squeals and synth flourishes that make that hard to do.
And despite being paired with the first Mercury Rev album, "Mint Humbucker" is not a Mercury Rev album, but a compilation from the Mint label, where they resided for some time. There is the exquisite single "Car Wash Hair" from the band themselves, which is full of rainy pop splendour. But the rest is made up of collaborative pieces with lesser bands like Radial Spangle.
There are a few Mercury Rev songs that break from the mold, however. "Blue and Black" is an enchantingly ghostly melody that bursts into dark grandeur by the end; consider it a preview of what Mercury Rev later became. "Sweet Oddysee Of A Cancer Cell T' Th' Center Of Yer Heart" has the same sound as most of the other songs, but stripped down and expanded into a rich, epic soundscape.
It certainly doesn't help that Baker -- who was drummed out of the group after this album -- has a very unappealing voice. He doesn't sing, as Jonathan Donahue later did; instead, he intones in an annoying twang. He sounds like a cowboy trying to go avant-pop, and only sounds hideously out of place, especially when reduced to just yelling "Yeeeaaaahhh!" over the music.
Released four years and a band breakup before anything else Mercury Rev did, "Yerself Is Steam" is dramatically different -- and not in a good way. Instead, it sounds like the Pixies on a bad acid trip.