The first chord explodes like a glitter bomb, igniting a stream of surging guitar, driving drums and anthem-style lyrics that shine like the sun on the Jersey Shore.
This is the sound of “Young Dionysians,” the song that kicks off The Quarry, the debut album by New Jersey rock quartet Mercy Union.
“Dionysians” trumpets part of the band’s sound, firmly rooted in the heartland rock meets punk – a kind of Tom Petty mixed with Jimmy Eat World vibe – sound that’s been kicking around North and Central Jersey for the past two decades. But this fist-pumping, body-and-soul liberating rock and roll sound is only a piece of Mercy Union’s repertoire. Truthfully, the group does not want listeners to enter with any preconceived notions; that was part of how the members decided on their name.
“We didn’t want the name to give away any style of music,” says Jared Hart, Mercy Union’s front man and principal songwriter. “That’s what we started with, with trying to find things so that when people heard it they wouldn’t jump and go: ‘That’s a hardcore band’ or ‘That’s an indie band.’”
This mentality is also helpful when most of your band consists of members from some of the most prolific bands from the Jersey punk scene in the past 10 years. Mercy Union is, by popular parlance, a supergroup: Hart is the founder of The Scandals, guitarist Rocky Catanese hails from Let Me Run and drummer Benny Horowitz also anchors the kit for The Gaslight Anthem, the biggest rock group to blossom from the garden state in the new millennium. These are much-beloved bands in their circles of the music world, with dedicated fanbases enamored with those groups’ distinct, personal sounds.
The sounds of Mercy Union do not sever ties with all that history.
“I wanted everyone listening to it to have as much of an open mind I had when I was writing it,” Hart says. “Keeping the labels off of it and all the past stuff – it’s there, those will be our influences, but I didn’t want it to be the skeleton of the whole thing.”
“[We wanted] something catchy, [with] energy but also restraint in the smart ways. I kind of wanted to capture the energy of all our punk bands in the past and use our new knowledge in songwriting and life experience in general, smash it all together and see what we came up with.”
That last ingredient in the sound reflects all four musicians’ drive to explore beyond their previously well-traveled roads and to have space to “get weird.”
The band’s brand of weird may not be apparent on first listen; the group does not play in a crazy tempo, the guitars are not tuned to some alien setting and Hart sings as he does, with bellowing thrust but also choir-boy soaring.
“I think weird is just taking risks,” Hart says. “Changing time signatures, changing song structures in ways that you’re not comfortable with and more just challenging who you are as a musician and taking a leap and not worrying about it.”
“Layovers,” another track on The Quarry, exemplifies this ethos. The six-minute, acoustic roadhouse ballad of remembrance and regret directly contrasts with the group’s tight rock anthems like “Dionysians” or “Chips and Vic,” but contrast is the point.
Hart points to mixtapes in the hip-hop world – he was mainlining Chance the Rapper’s multi-Grammy winning mixtape Coloring Book while he was writing the first batch of Mercy Union songs – as a primary influence in shaping the band’s sound.
“The idea of a mixtape kind of blew me away,” he says. “Different songs that didn’t necessarily feel like they fit on a record, but when put into context as a whole, they do. That was a big part of where the songs on The Quarry went to and how we bounced around in genres.”
Looking at other tracks in Mercy Union’s live set, “A Lot From Me” drifts calmly along with an almost reggae vibe; “Silver Dollars” is classic Tom Petty, gritty and grooving rock and roll; while “Accessory” and “Baggy” mix 70s soft rock with a harder and more ambient modern approach.
Hart says the band’s name was intended to reflect the members’ strong feelings of unity tied to the vulnerability of starting this new project that would stretch them as musicians. It also reflects the group’s sound; a united body of gentle but energetic and empowering songs. There’s a couplet in “Chips and Vics,” the band’s debut single, another swelling anthem, that sums up what the band offers: “Can I be all that you need? / Can you see, maybe, if you can stand to stand by me?”
Mercy Union opens for Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers with Control Top at Rock & Roll Hotel on Tuesday, April 23. Visit here for more information on the show. For more information on Mercy Union, check the band out on Facebook and Twitter.
Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; 202-388-7625; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com