THE SECRET MIGRATION
There are more interesting ways to spend 45 minutes than listening to "The Secret Migration," the new album from post-psychedelic rock trio Mercury Rev. A few suggestions: Staring at your thumb. Making a paper clip chain. Sorting laundry.
For those desiring uninterrupted tedium, the fifth release from the New York band is a stolid bet. Though Mercury Rev surely must have aimed for the stars with its trippy, densely layered atmospheric rock, the results are decidedly earthbound. Mercury Rev wants to be grand and eloquent like the Flaming Lips but lacks that band's cleverness and wit. It wants to be as ebullient and odd as the Polyphonic Spree, but it's too restrained to come close to joy or any sort of wildness, much less epiphany. Instead, each song feels sonically airbrushed, packaged, wiped clean, hermetically sealed.
Lead singer Jonathan Donahue's voice is an admittedly pretty, airy thing. If it weren't put to precisely the same numbing use song after song after song it might not eventually feel so cloying, even irritating -- particularly when he's delivering such mawkish fare as "Across Yer Ocean" or "My Love," where he sings lines like: "Ain't it amazing when the seasons begin to change / Someone behind the scenes just seems to pull some strings."
Though there's not much that pulls the album out of its vegetative state, "First-Time Mother's Joy (Flying)" is a much-appreciated exception. A song that feels inspired by the Beatles in their late phase, it is passionate and beautiful in a way that is not equaled anywhere else on the record. And, truth be told, it is more interesting than sorting laundry.
-- Joe Heim
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
Alt-country bad boy Ryan Adams has become a mellow fellow. According to the singer/guitarist's latest media bio, Adams -- once known for downing entire bottles of wine during concerts -- now enjoys hanging out with his dog, ordering the soup of the day, and contemplating "the smell of grass and rain."
All of this sounds like bad news for fans: Inner peace generally makes for lousy records.
Fortunately, Adams is channeling his infamous energy into his work, too. The guy has always been a prolific songwriter, but his latest release, "Cold Roses," is a sprawling, two-disc set of 18 nearly perfect ditties, one that harks back to his days with the (aptly named) country-rock outfit Whiskeytown.
"Sweet Illusions" traffics in that group's penchant for winsome melodies, with Adams crooning a confessional lyric while his new band -- the Cardinals -- serves up a swirl of Telecaster twang and pedal-steel ache. "Let It Ride," the first single, is high and lonesome, too, a fiddle-streaked meditation on finding pleasure in failure.
The set's best bet, though, is its opener. "Magnolia Mountain" could be the sequel to Neil Young's melancholy coming-of-age classic "Sugar Mountain" -- albeit one sung from the point of view of a world-weary adult. "We burned the cotton fields down in the valley and ended up with nothing but scars," Adams sings as his band throbs in the background. "The scars became the lessons that we gave to our children after the war."
Heavy-handed? Sure. But coming from a guy who's into hanging out with his dog these days, that angsty sentiment, like "Cold Roses" itself, is oddly reassuring.
-- Shannon Zimmerman