Unpretentious Masterpiece

Words like "lush," "sweeping" and "grandeur" can be dangled. The album is an enticing waterfall of orchestral strings, Mellotrons and outright gizmos. The result is sepia-toned, quirky, Pet Soundsy ... OK, lovely.

Hmm, Deserter's Songs. What are Mercury Rev deserting? The moroseness of their earliest recordings, mainly, but not anybody who's been intrigued by this humble, ingenious (and seldom-hyped) band since they emerged from Buffalo, N.Y., in the early '90s.

If See You on the Other Side, their 1995 album, showed a sudden proclivity for mesmerizingly angelic music, following the departure of original singer David Baker (remember the near-hit "Everlasting Arm?"), then Deserter's Songs takes you all the way 'round the moon -- forget any dark side. Hard to believe that these very folks had their plugs pulled for excessive volume at the 1993 Lollapalooza!

Words like "lush," "sweeping" and "grandeur" can be dangled. The album is an enticing waterfall of orchestral strings, Mellotrons and outright gizmos. Best of all, the music and lyrics are far less goofy than they once were, while vocalmeister Jonathan Donahue's tentative, quavering vocals movingly counterpoint all the brouhaha. The result is sepia-toned, quirky, Pet Soundsy ... OK, lovely.

"Holes" opens the album with characteristic sinuousness: "Time, all th'long re lines, that take/ control, of all th' smokelike streams, that flow into yr/ dreams." And you've never heard Rev the way they are in "Tonite It Shows" -- for once, though they've always made ado about recording on "35 mm magnetic film," they ascend into the truly cinematic. "Endlessly," with its trilling choir of ululating female voices and twittering instruments, is a ballet for weirdos, Van Dyke Parksian in its audacity and range.

Incredibly, given all this, the lyrics are accessible, even folksy. "Hudson Line," with a cameo from their neighbor in the Catskills, Garth Hudson (ha ha!), is a chugging railroad tune you could sing on your porch. It's about hopping a freight, and while it's way romanticized (you're likely to get killed on a freight, if you believe Spin magazine), the music gently reminds us that if life's not like that, it should be.

Artfully interwoven are a few very short, painless, fairly interesting instrumental passages that give the album the feel of a song-cycle, which, in the end, it is. The last song, "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp," is a ride off into the sunset -- or is it a sunrise after all?

If Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, Van Dyke Parks or Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys have been dancing through your headphones, don't overlook Mercury Rev. Kin to, but not an imitation of music in that vein, Deserter's Songs is a good-humored, wistful, delicate, but unpretentious masterwork.