Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Music Revew: Frog Eyes - Paul's Tomb: A Triumph

"My biggest fear approaching the follow-up to a supposed career peak is that the artist might extend the most appealing elements of their music in a less challenging, more predictable direction. Previously, this had never even seemed possible when it came to Carey Mercer and his seriously deranged Frog Eyes collective. That was, until 2007's Tears of the Valedictorian, an unqualified landmark and one of the great indie-rock records of the last decade. Here was a record that zeroed in on everything great about the Frog Eyes project—the sharp, twisting guitar figures, the stabbing keyboard lines, Mercer’s maniacal, unhinged yelp—and whittled it down to one singular, unforgettable experience. It would have been easy for Mercer to move closer to the middle on this follow-up, particularly with a cavalcade of high profile Canadian contemporaries not only championing his band, but pointing the way towards a wider audience. But to his immense credit, Mercer hasn’t given an inch. If anything, the resultant record is an even more idiosyncratic, more overwhelming feat of deranged lyricism and precision musicianship. And Mercer suffers no fools here, subtitling his latest work, Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, with the year’s most accurate bit of well-earned narcissism.

Thus, those looking for a Frog Eyes pop record should just stop, turn around, and pray that Expo 86 drops the prog flourishes, as Paul’s Tomb is a dense, challenging labyrinth of an album, full of inspired fits of lyrical provocation and side-winding instrumental dexterity—in short, an aural gauntlet, uncompromising and certainly not for the faint of heart. This level of high-wire inspiration should come as no surprise, at least not for those following Mercer’s steadily advancing footsteps over the last couple of years. Not only did Mercer contribute the best (only?) good tracks to the sophomore Swan Lake effort, Beast Moans, but he arguably tapped into even darker psychological concerns on his strong solo outing last year as Blackout Beach, Skin of Evil. What he may have lost in the departure of collaborator and keyboardist Spencer Krug—a more song-focused foil—he’s gained ten-fold in chemistry and exactitude. So much so that Paul’s Tomb can at times come off as too perfectly executed—at least until the patterns and prophecies lurking behind the veneer of swarming guitars and searing keys reveal themselves as arguably the most consistently stunning and rewarding pieces of music in Mercer’s intimidating oeuvre.

With the invariable quality of Mercer’s output over the years (this is the fifth Frog Eyes full-length, and not one can be written-off), he’s made it awfully difficult to deconstruct individual tracks. This is no more true than on Paul’s Tomb, as each piece feels thematically and instrumentally of a piece with its surroundings, with interlocking phrases and narratives woven throughout its air-tight structure. What he has done similarly here as he did on Valedictorian, however, is conveniently sequenced the album’s most bracing and visceral cut near the top of the running order. In fact, the album’s opening gambit, “A Flower in a Glove,” is not only the table setter, but this record’s highlight-in-question. As a searing, sinister yet simultaneously seductive charge of violent guitar lashings and trembling vocal incantations give rise, the track curls itself into a tightly wound ball of tension and release for nigh on 10 minutes, with each movement reaching its climax as Mercer psychotically unleashes an exorcising wail as aural punctuation at each juncture. It’s enough to dwarf a lesser recording through sheer power of presentation—though there are eight equally wonderful tracks waiting in the wings for those brave enough to traverse Mercer’s increasingly confrontational musical landscapes. (I imagine the snow-bound army on the album’s cover similarly bracing for Mercer’s impending onslaught.)

Paul’s Tomb may hit its peak early, but consistency is again the mark of the latest Frog Eyes release. Between the album’s many juggernauts—the aforementioned “A Flower in a Glove,” but also the twin mid-album uprisings “Odetta’s War” and “Styled by Dr. Roberts,” along with the epic closer and semi-title track "Paul's Tomb"—lie a number of powerfully condensed art-pop numbers and a couple of gracious breathers. Surprisingly, these comparatively brief respites are among the album’s most exquisite tunes, with the serene instrumental “Lear, in the Park” providing a couple minutes of peaceful rumination amidst the maelstrom, while the almost duet-like ballad “Violent Pslams” contrasts Mercer’s indelible falsetto against newest member Megan Boddy’s equally authoritative invocations. Like I said, however, these are anomalies on an album that is much more enamored with the possibilities of transcendence through cacophony and indictment via asymmetrical narrative. It may therefore be a little premature to begin slotting Paul’s Tomb in amongst the hierarchy of past Frog Eyes releases. What I can say, however—rather confidently and not even halfway through 2010—is that we may not see a better indie-rock record this year." [87/100] [Published 05.18.10]

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