I have to admit, I’ve been putting off writing this a bit. Why? Because this album is awesome. Silly awesome. I fear not doing it justice. But the project must trek on!
So after Telepathic Surgery there were some important personnel changes in the band. Drummer Richard English split from the band, leaving only Wayne and Michael behind (which makes you realize those last albums were just 3 people and Wayne as the only guitarist – amazing). They replaced him with Nathan Roberts, but far more importantly added 2 new members. First, guitarist Jonathan Donohue, now of Mercury Rev. I shared this with Q and Tex this weekend - I always knew Donahue went on to be in Mercury Rev but am not a big fan of theirs so just assumed he was the Rev guitarist. Nope – he’s the singer. That bizarre, freaked out dude who fronts Mercury Rev who is strong in his dreams? That’s the guy. Along with Donahue they added another future Mercury Rev member in producer Dave Fridmann. They new line up played some shows, felt good, and headed into the studio. And…
IN A PRIEST DRIVEN AMBULANCE (1990)
It seems obvious to say, but what immediately jumps out at you here is the production. Fridmann is one of those George Martin-esque producers where the band without him is just not the same band. Best example of this is on “Mountain Side” a great song that easily could have fit on earlier album, but the difference in production here is insane. He pulls the vocals to the front and makes them sound crisp and clear. He allows that background chaos that has always been a staple of the Lips, but manages to control that chaos in a new way, choosing the moments that burst through – namely the vocals, and that tight, short, but great Donohue guitar solo.
This sense of controlling the chaos can also be seen on “Stand in Line” – which fills the position of spacey freak out, but this time it’s down to 4 minutes instead of 9 and is much the better for it.
So, with some time freed up, they get to take a more standard song and push it up to soaring heights. The result is “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain” which blows everything they’d done before (and a lot of what they’ve done since) out of the water. Just an amazing epic song that captures all the beauty and dissonance this band offers, plus their weird take on religion, the power of the universe, and all the great stuff that makes this band who they are. In a lot of ways, this one song is the turning point for the band – the point where they discover just how beautiful their music can be, without sacrificing any of their oddness. This idea is reinforced on the closing cover of “What a Wonderful World”, which again captures that sense of beauty, particularly through a great high guitar line during the first chorus.
If for some reason you don’t own this, here’s “Five Stop”
There are a ton of highlights on this album: “Unconsciously Screamin’”, which is their great “single” from the album and really pulls them into the state of great modern alternative music rather than 70s influence; “God Walks Among Us Now”, a high energy quick thrill ride, “Shine on Sweet Jesus” – the perfect album opener. Really it’s all amazing, but I’m rambling.
The point is, you must own this album – there’s just no reason not to. I would be interested to hear some of your takes, so perhaps will hold off for now…
One last small note – my version is the 2 disc set that came out a few years back and includes The Mushroom Tapes, an album of demos for Ambulance recorded without Fridmann or English. It’s nothing great, but a fascinating look at how much the production adds here. One highlight though is Donohue singing prominent backing vocals on “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain”, and suddenly you hear that yes, this is Mercury Rev’s singer. Very odd.