Mercury Rev's psychedelic pop outshines Doves


May 15, 2005


Psychedelic pop hasn't been the dominant sound in popular music since the vaunted Summer of Love in 1967, but it has continued to evolve for the last four decades, and it's still responsible for some of the most inventive rock -- sounds that keep your feet moving on the ground as they encourage your imagination to roam the heavens.

Upstate New York's Mercury Rev and Manchester, England's, Doves form one of the most inspired psychedelic-pop pairings in quite some time. And though each band approaches its swirling, atmospheric sounds from different directions -- as can be expected in a genre where the first rule is "no rules" -- their sold-out show at the Vic Theatre on Friday night showed that they share a similar philosophy.

Newer, sunnier Donahue

Mercury Rev is touring behind "The Secret Migration," the sixth album in a career that stretches back to the mid-'80s -- though the only constants have been singer and songwriter Jonathan Donahue and his faithful sidekick, guitarist Grasshopper, aka Sean Mackiowiak. The group started as a chaotic psychedelic punk band in the style of the early Flaming Lips -- a group Donahue joined for two albums in the early '90s.

Mercury Rev's finest moment remains 1998's "Deserter's Songs," when it took a dramatic turn toward lushly orchestrated folk-rock, similar to the Flaming Lips on "The Soft Bulletin." But Wayne Coyne was always a better performer: Donahue spent far too much time on stage staring at his shoes.

"The Secret Migration" introduces a new, sunnier Donahue, happily crooning ecological anthems and strange cartoonish pop ditties such as "Arise" and "Diamonds," while the current tour finds him transformed, like the butterfly on the album's cover, into a much more animated, enthusiastic and fun presence.

During an hourlong set, Donahue cheerfully conducted his five-piece band as it powered through wave after wave of dramatic crescendos while the video screen flashed enigmatic images that wouldn't have seemed out of place at a '60s acid test, interspersed with a string of inspirational slogans from such diverse philosophers as Henry Miller and Frank-N-Furter of the "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

Donahue is in a spiritual state of mind these days -- some of the videos evoked "Jonathan Livingstone Seagull," and the group covered Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" -- but it's working for him. The formerly dour bandleader not only encouraged the crowd to cheer, he actually smiled.

The comparison is one that both artists are tired of, but the new Donahue brings to mind the gonzo ringleader that Coyne has become. Yet with bass, guitar, keyboards and live drums driving Mercury Rev instead of the digital backing tracks that power the Flaming Lips, there's enough of a distinction, thanks to the relentless crunch, to set the band apart.

Doves are also supporting a fine new disc, "Some Cities," which has spawned the Motown-flavored Britpop hit, "Black and White Town." The band's third album is a much catchier and more groove-oriented affair than its earlier efforts, but fans of interstellar overdrive needn't fret.

Lesson not learned

During its 90-minute performance, Doves still honed to their Pink Floyd-meets-the-"Madchester"-rave-scene formula, with the potent dance grooves decorated by layers of trippy guitar and echoed vocals. Bassist and vocalist Jimi Goodwin was in fine voice, despite the fact that this was his first gig in five weeks, after a serious throat ailment forced Doves to cancel the first leg of their conquering U.S. tour.

Unfortunately, Doves haven't learned the lesson Mercury Rev finally heeded. With the exception of Goodwin, who was amiable but hardly energetic, the group remains a bunch of shoe-gazers. Nor did the quartet vary its mix enough to avoid sounding repetitive: The new tunes from "Some Cities" are mean and lean on album, but morphed into samey-sounding space funk onstage.

These problems made Mercury Rev the night's highlight. But for fans of psychedelic pop, both bands are well worth tuning in and turning up.