Much will be made of the ties between Mercy Union’s members and their previous projects. Jared Hart fronted the Scandals, and Benny Horowitz was the drummer of arguably the most successful band to emerge from the early 2000s east coast punk rock scene, The Gaslight Anthem. Lead guitarist Rocky Catanese and bassist Nick Jorgensen have also been around that scene in various forms, but with lower profiles than their bandmates.
Mercy Union may have a lot in common with their contemporaries; the familiar Americana punk rock fusing of relatively simple but catchy hooks and nostalgic lyrics. The main similarity though is their coming together as a group of friends in a basement making noise.
The Quarry doesn’t take itself too seriously, and feels more like the product of a series of jams than an explicit attempt to make an album. It has the rawness of a new band testing their ground, but the production and arrangements show Mercy Union to be shrewd and experienced in the studio.
Album opener Young Dionysians, Silver Dollars and Reverse are very much in the ball park of what is to be expected of a New Jersey punk band. Simple chord progressions and more direct drumming let the lyrics and melody drive the songs. Hart’s voice is gritty and at times harsh on its own, but the layers of harmonies, as in Young Dionysians, soften it and balance everything into a more refined mix. Silver Dollars has a radio-ready chorus hook, sitting on top of guitars just on the right side of break up, and is easily one of the album’s high points.
Mercy Union don’t rest on the tried and tested four chord combos, though. Fever Dreams, the delay infused guitar chops in Chips and Vicsand penultimate track The Quarry are all riff driven and it’s in these, particularly The Quarry, where Horowitz’s drumming is allowed to come out. More reminiscent of later Gaslight Anthem records where structures and styles were more varied, Horowitz shows he has much more in his locker than the standard rapid and thumping punk beats. A subtle shift to the high hats at the end of Chips and Vicslifts the transition and might go towards settling the debate on whether drummers are musicians too… might.
The dark and brooding Baggy shifts the mood, with an almost discordant chorus, while Layovers takes a more downbeat turn, led by harmonica and wistful lyrics. An ode to Amy Winehouse is the only eyebrow raiser on The Quarry. Twenty Seven opens with the late singer being interviewed by Jools Holland. It’s infectious and catchy and musically a really good song. There’s even a less than subtle nod to Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man at the end of the chorus. Its theme just seems incongruous with the rest of the album, an odd choice of tribute from a New Jersey punk band.
The Quarry covers a lot of ground for a debut album and many will be hoping it will be the beginning of Mercy Union rather than the one-off product of two friends simply catching up.