Monday, May 17, 2010
Frog Eyes's "A Flower in a Glove"
A lot of bands don't get the appreciation they deserve -- when was the last time you read a write-up about up-and-comers like LCD Soundsystem or The National? Who will pay attention to those guys, if not literally every blog and also this one! All right, a lot of times the blogosphere (barfosphere, sorry for the jargon) becomes something of an echo chamber. You may have noticed I never wrote about Bonobos pants until Pitchfork gave them a 9.7 and Best New Twill Fabric. Even global tastemakers like us here at OYL (hi, our reader in Iran the other week!) have trouble coming up with Totally Original Topics to Cover.
Still, when the hype machine gets a little sloppy and needs a cog greased (yuck, NSFW) or belt tightened (its belts are made of Panda Bear's old hackeysacks, braided together), I will be here to throw myself under the wheel. Let's all take a moment to appreciate that industrial metaphor, because it is working as efficiently as Henry Ford's first assembly line. All right? All right, back to business.
Frog Eyes have been one of the most consistent -- and consistently thrilling -- bands of the decade. They have all the ingredients for megasuperjam indie success. Canadian? Check. Idiosyncratic vocalist? Check. Singer married to a member of the band, so totally cute? Check. Spencer Krug connection? Big check. And yet, my conversations about Frog Eyes usually circle back to their famous friends, like Krug or Dan Bejar. My experiences with Frog Eyes the live juggernaut, destroyer of guitar strings and eardrums alike, have all involved seeing the band play to half-capacity crowds. What's the problem, here?
The answer is: I don't know, I don't have that problem! I love this band! Take this song, "A Flower in a Glove," the opening track from new album (and Dead Oceans debut), Paul's Tomb: A Triumph. The first thing any Frog Eyes devotee will notice is the length -- we've got a 9-minute epic here, reaffirming that Frog captain Carey Mercer is continuing to develop his (Krug-esque, yes) interest in long, multi-suite compositions. If you've not heard the band's last flagship song in this vein, 2007's "Bushels," please stop reading my moron blog post, put some pants on (or, actually, take some pants off -- the song's that good), and listen to a piece of music that over and over again reaffirms my belief in the power of, yes, rock 'n' roll.
Every article or review or blurb or Post-it about Frog Eyes spends roughly 90% of its space reporting on Carey Mercer's voice, and rightly so. It's an instrument unparalleled in its slice of the musical world -- the only comparison that comes to mind, a voice able to go seamlessly from guttural rumblings to razorthroated shouts to ethereal falsetto all in one song, is Isaac Brock. Even Brock, however, seems languorous, downright drenched in codeine (which, to be fair, he probably is) when compared to Mercer's manic, syllable-shredding, a-man-possessed utterances.
"A Flower in a Glove" wastes no time putting that voice to work. "You were always unnoticed!," Mercer howls over guitars drenched in reverb and stoned scuzz (we'll get to these soon), "you were always the flame that dies." His voice whoops and hisses, spitting out an introduction to a "bastard with a flat-top / singing, 'There's a flame that never, n-n-n-never dies!". Melanie Campbell, Mercer's wife, pounds away on her drumkit in her militaristic, downbeat-central fashion, consistently pummeling--
Hold on. I'm concerned that this is reading as a review of a metal band. I'm using a lot of Dio (R.I.P) endorsed adjectives. Frog Eyes is many things, but a metal band -- no. Yes, Mercer's lyrics often revolve around the fantastic, his fixation on all things mythological (another Paul's Tomb highlight features the refrain, "You don't need Cassandra / to gaze over the edge") in full force, here, as well. The music, though, is sweeping and melodic. Check out the 1:15-mark:
"You were always / a saint, / a flower in a glove, / a night made for the raising of your glass." Sure, you get the sense that Mercer's head is populated by men in chainmail, women with hair long enough to dangle out of castle keeps. But if all of this seems less than realistic, less than contemporary, thickly cinematic -- yes, it is. And the music is, too. Mercer sings that last line (and he's singing now, checking his volume) as Campbell slows the tempo and the guitars swirl behind him, reaching higher and higher on their necks in a stop-start, head-nodding groove. Frog Eyes has a sense of cinema, and their songs heave with drama. References to a modern-day King Lear later on in the album, anyone? They're there for the taking.
Paul's Tomb, anchored by "A Flower in a Glove," seems to me the most accessible path yet Mercer's given us into his nightmarish imagination, frightening but always swooning with a seasick sort of beauty. When he and his band bring things back up to a boil at 4:45 -- "the river is bad, / the river is cold" -- I'm ready to suit up and follow him on horseback to battle the Visigoths or the Normans or even just the kids on campus with bad haircuts who playfight with foam swords on the quad (please let us battle them). "How was the king?," Mercer asks amidst all this turmoil, "Was he sad, / was he cold?" I'd be more than happy to swear allegiance to him on any number of fog-swept heaths. "Put your hand on my face, / row away from the grief stricken man," he intones as the song fades into a wall of beautiful, chiming guitars (they are a guitar band now, more than ever), "put your trust in my fate." Yes, sir.