Eighteen years is a long stretch in the perceived wilderness. David Baker emerged with psychedelic heroes Mercury Rev as the voice of the band when they were, simply put, at their wildest, most interesting and yes, best on Yerself Is Steam and Boces. He was dropped from the scene after leaving/being fired from the band in ’94 and aside from a brief, indie celebrity strewn solo sojourn soon after and some random production gigs, has kept his borderline insane acid-beat poet personality to himself while Mercury Rev went on to become briefly inspiring but mostly bloated and banal Flaming Lips coattail riders. A shame for both parties.
His new project Variety Lights, named, aptly, for a ’50s Fellini drama, is, as you would hope, a musical departure from his early ’90s output but retains much of what made Baker such a charismatic, slightly worrying figure at that time.
This is a full on, no doubts space jam. It’s a wobbling, wibbling, tribbling wonk of intergalactic drug abuse and maze-like star map vocals.
Tracks like ‘Starlit’, a fractured but nonetheless rich swoosh of trip-beats and glimmering synth pads, and ‘Sea Faraway’, a tossed-out surrealist poem that captures Baker’s disgraced children’s clown persona in aspic, are funny, heavy-hearted yet open-eyed and nursery rhyme luscious.
Pop jerks up on ‘Silent Too Long’, a bedsit hit that suggests “There’s power in not thinking these things through” as retro keys squelch and thrum in the background. There’s also some commercial appeal to ‘Establishment’, home to a sinisterly double-layered vocal part offering a romantic, damaged lyric, savant style, buoyed by a tremendous and incomprehensible string-led chorus.
Other standouts include instrumental closer ‘Infinity Room’, a jag of repetion and distant, calling sound. It bubbles and blurs like the rest of the record, a sweet, gentle and dark alien; also ‘You Are So Famous’ a tune in which we move, skipping, into disco of sorts. It’s a warped, sick-up version of an ’80s pop classic and it’s a dance tune for the mentally deranged. Weirdly addictive too…
Like much psych there’s indulgence of the worst kind to be put up with here . ‘Invisible Forest’ with its shambling, ragged guitars dry-humping tuneless futurist disco at least has a dark coda to recommend it while ‘Oh Setting Son’ is a semi-improvised sounding ballad that bubbles with ‘50’s b-movie blur and lollops to a close, an aimless space troll.
There’s also the too-stoned ‘Sell Your Soul’ to combat – the kind of LSD dominated wreck Baker should be happy to have left in the 1990s. Obviously this is a space travel album aimed at acid casualties but even with Baker’s tongue firmly in his chewed cheek there’s no call for this.
‘Crystal Cove’ is atmospheric, no question, a wander through the dark half of the psyche, maybe the back-alleys of Mars, the dodgier ports of Neptune perhaps – but while it’s candidly and admirably nuts it’s also overlong and cartoonish.
It’s great to see Baker back, it’s heartening to hear him drop a couple of big tunes, drawl out the randomness that dominates his legitimately queer mind and get the show on the road again – next time a little quality control may be in order, a process by which these transmissions from a distant star can be improved upon and made more, how you say… universal.
Listen to Central Flow