Album Review: Shiva Burlesque – Mercury Blues + Skullduggery

Independent Project Records continues its dazzling campaign of thoughtfully curated compilation/reissue releases with Mercury Blues + Skullduggery, a 21-track set of music from L.A.-based Shiva Burlesque. With a sound vaguely reminiscent (in places) of early Dream Syndicate crossed with The Gun Club, the band’s style didn’t fit comfortably into any of the prevailing musical trends of the late ‘80s and early 1990s. Folk rock is an obvious touchstone, and some listeners compare Shiva Burlesque’s sound to Echo and the Bunnymen. But there are sonic references in their songs that connect the group’s sound to The Doors by way of Cannibal and the Headhunter (“Do the Pony”) with a dash of The Cult.

Elsewhere, the folky textures of “Cherry Orchard” hearken back to the Beatles’ India excursion that informed their White Album. “Sick Friend,” on the other hand, fits well into the alt-rock of the era, sounding like the hit it wasn’t destined to become. Song titles like “Chester the Chimp” might telegraph a sense of humor, but the song’s insistent beat and eerie ambiance take it somewhere else entirely.

IPM’s release pairs 1990’s Mercury Blues with a passel of demo tracks, but newcomers should know that in the case of this group, “demos” doesn’t signal lack of a fully formed musical vision. The demo of “Chrome Halo” is as hypnotic as the official version (both are included here). And tunes like the buzzing, unsettling “Nez Percé” have enough character to qualify as finished tracks (even if they might not be).

For established bands, eclecticism can be a virtue; for a group attempting to gain a foothold in a coded musical marketplace, refusal (inability?) to commit to a definable style makes them hard to sell. So it’s up to the listener to decide if Shiva Burlesque’s unfocused character is a feature or a bug. True, some cuts (“Who is the Mona Lisa,” to name one) only hint at what a proper studio recording might have sounded like, but they do so in intriguing fashion, and are well worth hearing.

After only a pair of albums – a self-titled 1987 record and Mercury Blues – the group split, its members (Grant Lee Phillips most notable among them) going on to other projects. Independent Project Records’ lavish double-LP release serves the memory of this comparatively underground and short-lived outfit quite well.