Monday, December 7, 2009

#25. Frog Eyes - The Folded Palm (Absolutely Kosher, 2005) and Tears of the Valedictorian (Absolutely Kosher, 2008)

The Vancouver/Victoria scene always seemed to be the under rated one of the big three Canadian indie movements that were going on in the 00s. Toronto and Montreal may have had more to offer on a sheer quantity level, but it strikes me that for the most part their contributions to the overall "indie" landscape were very much more of the same . Now don't get me wrong, I like Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire as much as the next guy - well, maybe not the latter, I still have hella reservations about them truth be told but that's neither here nor there - but any time a new band from wither of those incestuous scenes started to get noticed they never seemed to do anything but cover well trod ground without bringing too much "new" to the party. Of course the west coast scene was just as guilty of that, New Pornographers were your everyday power-pop act and I wouldn't call either Sunset Rubdown or Destroyer particularly innovative for all their quality, but they did have probably the most singular, however minor they turned out to be in the grand scheme of things, contribution to rock music in the 00s. They had Frog Eyes, and they unleashed them upon an unsuspecting world most of whom looked at them like they were a mutated baby and then backed away slowly.

It's at times like this that I'm glad I'm not normal.

I'm not someone who puts concepts like "newness" and "innovation" as primary qualities I look for in music, at least not to the point of wholly writing off bands that do nothing new no matter how well they do it, but Frog Eyes' quartet of albums represent the most excited I got over music for its otherness this decade. Imagine this, if you will: the love-child of David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust and Pere Ubu's Dave Thomas singing stream-of-consciousness political rants over carnival organ and jagged guitar fragments while Moe Tucker's spiritual cousin bashes her rudimentary drum kit. Occasionally things calm down to simple organ textures and light guitar work. Occasionally the singer just repeats a pair of lines for two minutes and calls it a song. That is what Frog Eyes bring to the table in a way; it's nothing new in one sense but it also manages to sound completely fresh, almost alien in the Pitchfork - one of the band's early champions I might add - landscape of revivalists. A lot of it comes down to Carey Mercer, whose vocals seem to place him on the verge of madness and/or an emotional breakdown at any given point on the albums as he goes into allegorical rants about our dumb world with a hint of self awareness that makes the whole act more bearable, but the band themselves don't exactly trade in on sounding normal either. The result is always fascinating and it's been steadily improving with each new release.

The band's first two records, 2002's The Bloody Hand and 2003's The Golden River were both more interesting than they were good in my opinion. The Golden River had its moments but on the whole it wasn't particularly memorable outside of sounding weird. Their third album, 2004's The Folded Palm was a different story altogether though; the weirdness was still there but it was married to a series of just plain great songs, thirteen undeniable slices of Frog Eyes' particular brand of madness. Mercer's lyrics were more focused yet still freewheeling, Melanie Campbell was drumming like she had a grudge against every part of her kit and the remaining members dialed right into the middle ground between accessibly irreverent and offputtingly obtuse. It was the sound of a band coming into its own, and it was glorious to witness. And that was before I started paying attention to the meat of Mercer's lyrics, where he crafted a series of stream-of-consciousness anti-Bush-era America rants that only reveal their true nature upon close inspection "The Oscillator Hums" imagines a sniper attack, "New Tappy is Heard and Beheld" devolves into a repeated growl of 'Fuck you bird' while the preceding song makes it obvious we're talking symbolically, "I Like Dot Dot Dot" is one of Mercer's two-line songs but when those lines are 'Ain't nobody gonna fuck the son/I'll send it to you' it's pretty obvious waht he has in mind. It's not the sly social satire of another 2004 entry on this list but the way it goes about its political aspects, rage barely concealed by quirk, makes it a valuable album to revisit.

Of course it's easy to see the Folded Palm as little more than a precursor to Frog Eyes' tru masterpiece in light of 2007's Tears of the Valedictorian. If The Folded Palmwas a refinement of what made the first two Frog Eyes records so singular and interesting, Valedictorian is thst refinement expanded to its breaking point. Three of the nine songs break the 5-minute barrier, but that sort of epic feel is present even on something as brief as the two-and-a-half minute opener "Idle Songs." Of course it's the three longer songs that give the album its highlights, but the whole thing feels like its operating on a higher level than the previous outing. Mercer's vocals are still ranty and stream-of-consciousness but also seem to be a bit calmer and less angry. Campbell still drums with her trademark ferocity but its tempered with moments of restraint that are much less fleeting. Organist Grayson Walker seems to have taken on a more prominent role beyond simple foil for Mercer's acidic guitar bursts, becoming the driving force behind the likes of ""Stockades"" and "Bushels" and bassist Michael Rak...well I still can't think of anything to say about him but he doesn't suck, that's for sure. At any rate, the three year break between albums seems to have resulted in a version of Frog Eyes that's realized how powerful restraint can be when used properly, and they're using that new found gift to its greatest effect possible all over Valedictorian.

Not only does the band seem to have discovered restraint, they seem to be actively courting accessibility at points. "Reform the Countryside" is probably the most normal thing that Mercer's ever performed, driven by a manic acoustic guitar (itself an oddity in the Frog Eyes canon) and featuring an atypically normal vocal from Mercer. It's also a great fucking song, and really it only sounds normal when you compare it to the rest of the album. Actually, other than the opening section of "Caravan Breakers" and ""Stockades"" Mercer seems to have toned down his vocals quite a bit here, and no just on the calm moments either. It suits the more expansive feel of the album though, I mean I don't think "Bushels" - possibly the best song of 2007 by-the-by - would be half as good if Mercer and the rest of the band were still in their normal MO of tearing shit up at all times, the restraint in the first section builds up a lot of tension going in to the suitably epic climax. "Caravan Breakers, They Prey on the Weak and the Old" goes i nteh opposite direction, starting off manic - though not as manic as the version previewed in the band's (amazing) Daytrotter Session - and falling apart until it ends up as an oasis of calm, but the effect is almost as good. The main thing that the longer tracks - "Bushels" clocks in at just over 9 minutes while "Caravan" runs a comparatively scant 7 and a half - show is that the band have matured compositionally as well, showing they're just as adept at a slow burn as they are at a 2-4 minute burst. If the y keep going down the road that Valedictorian started them down for their next outing I won't be surprised if the '10s have their first undeniable classic, though topping Valedictorian might be a task that won't come that easily.

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