Frog Eyes’ Triumph

25 11 2010

Nick Lyons takes a lengthy look at Frog Eyes’ latest album

It is a curious and rather unfortunate reality that reviewers are often given very little time to listen to and think about an album before writing about it. I have found over the years that the albums which have come to mean the most to me have revealed themselves slowly: a good album does not skip the foreplay. Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph by Victoria’s Frog Eyes is one such album. Let me tell you why.

I got “the album” (I use quotations as my initial copy was ripped; in my own defense, I have since bought its vinyl incarnation, which has only fed my already potent addiction) two weeks before it came out and was proud to let everyone know that I got to listen to it before most. Monday Magazine received an advance copy, probably in hopes of getting a review. We didn’t give them one until now, well after both of the band’s tours (including a show for Rifflandia, which I sadly missed due to wedding obligations) have come to a halt. Sorry, guys; let me try to make up for lost time.

In many ways, it is fortuitous that I have waited until now to start writing about it for it has taken this long to settle. At first, I didn’t like it because I was expecting an album more akin to the band’s previous work. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have. The band has gone through many of changes since Tears of the Valedictorian (which is equally good though very different), most notably in lineup. Now bereft of Spencer Krug (Frog Eyes front man Carey Mercer’s collaboration with Krug now limited to the Swan Lake sessions) and without a bass guitarist, the band chose to replace both with multi instrumentalist Megan Boddy, who lends her keyboards (both regular and bass) and vocal talents to Paul’s Tomb. The change in lineup has led to a vastly different sound.

Paul’s Tomb begins with the sprawling “Flower in a Glove” which, weighing in at over nine minutes long, sets an epic (God, I hate that word) tone for an equally epic (uggh) recording. It is an interesting choice in sequencing, throwing down the glove(s) immediately. The album would have had a very different feel had it opened with a less challenging track such as “The Sensitive Girls” or even “Styled By Dr. Roberts.” But Frog Eyes chooses to lead us through seemingly innumerable transitions at the album’s very outset, creating an ornate, multi faceted gate through which we must wander before even catching a glimpse of all that is Paul’s Tomb: a bold move indeed. And so it begins.

Carey Mercer’s voice has always been a favourite topic of discussion when critics speak of Frog Eyes’ recordings, and for good reason. I’ve always struggled to find the right adjective to describe the man’s beast moan as I foist the band upon friends and visiting relatives. I’ve used “barbaric,” “frantic,” “manic,” “contemplative” . . .  none of which really do it justice. Listening to the album just the other night, however, my wife stumbled upon the perfect word to describe the voice: “emotive.” Indeed, with astounding range, Mercer takes us from exhalant to tortured, sometimes within seconds. He yips, howls and shrieks for our attention and yet the band is largely ignored on the popular level, forced to swallow their pride, recently opening for young Japandroids on their transcontinental tour. It is nothing short of tragic.

Equally impressive to the range of voice Mercer engages, are his words—often indecipherable (which is why you should buy the double (!), 45 speed gatefold album on which the lyrics are printed—which bear reference to subjects diverse as Classical Mythology, street thugs and even The Doors. It is an incredibly literate and agile rawk, screamed by a barbaric tongue (William Carlos said, “The only Universal is the local, as savages, artists and, to a lesser extent, peasants know.” With Mercer, we have the occasion to hear the mongrel voice of an artist-savage, a rare hybrid indeed.) T.S. Eliot himself might even be proud of these songs, though I doubt he would enjoy them.

Mercer’s Doors reference (and this might be of my own devise—interpreting the line “never gonna break on through” in the album’s closer as a reference to the sixties cult band) is taken up by the overwhelming bass sound, unique (as far as I’m concerned) to Frog Eyes and The Doors. Like their predecessor, Frog Eyes has replaced the bass guitar with a bass keyboard; unlike the Doors, however, Frog Eyes manages to pull it off (unsatisfied with the sound of the bass-guitar on their first recording, the Doors used session bass guitar players for all the rest, only using Manzerik’s second keyboard live).

The bass comes through particularly well on the vinyl, a massive but warm zeppelin throb, underpinning, and providing a counterpoint to, shrieking guitars and vocals. I suspect that the switch in bass, from guitar to keyboard, has influenced the percussion on this album. Whereas previous Frog Eyes albums have featured a style of percussion more akin to instrumentation than rhythm, on this recording, Melanie Campbell plays in a more straight ahead way: she has made the transition with incredible ease…

I am going to stop there. I could go on endlessly about the merits of Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, but I will leave it to you all in hopes that you discover it for yourselves. Please do so. Be patient with it and be assured that though the fruits are slow to manifest, they are of the most succulent variety. If you are unsatisfied with the album after two weeks of solid listening, please contact me: I would be happy to take it off of your hands as Christmas is almost upon us and I plan to give it to everyone and anyone I hold dear.

Nick Lyons does concert reviews and other stuff for Monday Magazine. To read Nick’s blog, visit milkandhoney2009.wordpress.com.

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25 11 2010

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