Now here’s a band that’s actually doing something for the revolution. Granted, the radical movement in question — instrumental twang rock — is headed back in time and out to sea, but San Francisco’s long-running Mermen have the distinction of being the genre’s most ambitious revisionists. Led by monster guitarist (and surfer) Jim Thomas, the trio rides the wild surf as if Jimi Hendrix had come back to be a rodeo star.
On A Glorious Lethal Euphoria, the band’s first national release, Thomas lassos bucking broncos of feedback with soft hands. Equally capable of settling down to precise figures of reverbed/tremoloed modesty, he whips the luridly titled originals (“Scalp Salad,” “Pulpin’ Line,” “The Drowning Man Knows His God”) into stormy seas of aggressive rock virulence and sends soft breezes to caress placid lily pads, never settling for generic methodology. Bassist Allen Whitman and drummer Martyn Jones do a lot more than merely back Thomas up, however; their contribution to the campaign is equally intricate and motile. Finishing the aptly titled album off with a Brahms movement, the Mermen leave an old, rarely challenged medium much better off than they found it.
The brief Songs of the Cows is even better, a virtual symphony of trio improvisation as close in dynamic achievement — not style, ’cause this sure ain’t no blues — to Cream at its zenith. Exciting, varied and engaging in ways the jam bands (whose audience will likely embrace the Mermen, who don’t waste time with lyrics or pop structures at all — what a concept!) can’t possibly touch, this febrile, visceral rock is performed with exceptional intelligence and flair. Untainted by cerebral haughtiness and careful to avoid anus-climbing delusions, the Mermen take the best feature of surf music — the pure riff — and sail away with it. Magical.