Mercury Dime – Double buffalo nickels on the Mercury Dime
Sitting down with an artist to listen to their new record is a situation akin to meeting a couple’s new baby: You just pray the tyke doesn’t look like Strother Martin or, in this musical equivalent, sound like Strother Martin. As Mercury Dime leader Cliff Retallick and I put an ear to Darkling, the band’s follow-up to their 1996 debut Baffled Ghosts, prayers were answered, as it revealed itself to be a lovely child with a pleasantly, if only vaguely, familiar face.
Nostalgia is much better in choice morsels than when force-fed a repackaged half-decade or so at a time, and Darkling — with its traces of such seemingly disparate elements as R.E.M., countrypolitan, Neil Young, and “#9 Dream” — gets things right.
The intelligent and perpetually hatted Retallick, along with pedal steel guitarist Darryl Jones and bassist Eric Webster, grew up in Faith, North Carolina, a town of about 550 where it sometimes feels like things don’t change fast enough to give nostalgia a fighting chance. He acknowledges that this small-town upbringing doesn’t entitle them to any special musical birthright, but there is an obvious and genuine fondness for these roots, which turns to amusement as he recalls musicians trying to “out-country” each other — a phenomenon he refers to as a “howdier-than-thou” attitude.
Inspired by The Basement Tapes and then going through a phase where they “hated everything in life except bluegrass, everything except Raymond Fairchild,” Retallick recalls with a chuckle, the trio started playing together constantly. The results were interesting experiments, with Retallick one of those guys who’d been playing and singing since junior high and the other two the very definition of self-taught.
When it came time for the inevitable demo, they bit the bullet and called in “rock star ringers Alan and Jim” (stoic guitarist Alan Wyrick and animated drummer Jim Martin) from up the road in Faith’s big brother Salisbury. It was this fivesome who recorded Baffled Ghosts, a rustic, atmospheric collection of piano-driven and pedal-steel-haunted sketches just waiting for the listener’s imagination to fill in the blank. (Just what is that pine box doing bouncing around in the back seat of the car?)
Looking at the back of that CD, it’s hard to miss Mitch Easter’s underlined name. Easter mixed the second half of Ghosts, and he was their first and only choice for producer when it came time to make Darkling. Retallick can’t say enough about Easter’s production talents and his studio equipment: The first part of the conversation is riddled with references to “all-tube compression,” “plate reverb” and “1978 BBC-issued boards.” When a gentle reminder is due that Mercury Dime probably also contributed a little something to the record, it’s provided by Tor Hanson, in whose basement — a.k.a. the office of Yep Roc Records (Tonebenders, the Revival compilations) — this meeting is taking place. “Even Mitch can’t make a turd not sound like a turd,” Hanson says.
But Mercury Dime has indeed matched Easter’s meticulousness on Darkling, right down to the CD’s handsome packaging. For starters, there’s the lettering used for the song titles, which comes from a photocopy of a John Keats lithograph Retallick purchased during a London trip, with individual letters recombined ransom-note style.
The music inside is equally well-crafted. “Garden of Memories”, a song Retallick wrote on the ride back after visiting Gram Parsons’ grave outside New Orleans, features Jones’ Ben Keith-like pedal steel and a mid-song mandolin stroll, plus guest harmony vocals from Lynn Blakey sounding like a young Dolly Parton, or a grieving angel. “Garden of Memories” is the album’s most “country” moment, but just one in a series of gorgeous ones.
The band’s versatility is showcased early by pairing the gospelish “Peace Comes Dropping Slow”, featuring roof-raising vocal support from South Carolina jazz vocalist Daryle Rice, with the gentle “Lighthouse on Driftwood”. The band turns up the heat on “(The Girl They Called) Jessica”, all vintage Vox organ and harsh vocals, and “Pray For Lockjaw”, which Retallick laughingly describes as “Allman Brothers by way of Jackie Gleason.”
The crowning achievement is the title track, a moody, moving tribute to Retallick’s late mother, Carole Janette, whose framed picture graces the CD booklet. It’s one of five songs he wrote during a period of inspiration and introspection in which he wrestled with a big question — in his words, “How do you stay engaged with those people who are gone?” Rooted in an incident from the funeral and influenced by Keats’ “Ode To A Nightingale”, “Darkling” is ushered in and coaxed out by mournful bird whistles supplied by Cliff’s father — offering, at least for a few moments, a family reunion.
Early in our conversation, Retallick describes a few of the sounds created by Easter’s musical museum pieces as having a “truly eerie quality that just kind of hovers” and “a warm, woody quality.” Those words could just as easily apply to Darkling.