New To Us – Frog Eyes

Grief starts to become indulgent, and it doesn’t serve anyone, and it’s painful. But if you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people, so they can experience something of that person.
Patti Smith

Forgive us for a rather sombre outing today, but out of great suffering inevitably comes great art, and when an artist is channelling something as universal as grief, they almost inevitably stumble across something that resonates with audiences far and wide. Much of the inspiration for Frog Eyes’ latest record comes from the death of singer Carey Mercer’s father, and Carey’s own battle with cancer. His track, I Ain’t Around Much, is one of the most moving musings on his grief for his father, and his own fatherhood being put in doubt that you’re ever likely to hear, but it is far from being the only great track to come from the power of grief.

One of the most painful tracks we’ve ever heard is Sufjan Stevens’ song Casimir Pulaski Day. It’s a painfully raw account of an ex-girlfriend’s death from bone cancer. It lays bare the feelings of finding out about the diagnosis, of recalling the reaction of her family, and of struggling to equate how his faith and his loss can possibly simultaneously exist. It is equal parts beautiful and devastating.

Of course not all grief is for those we love, The Mountain Goats’ track Pale Green Things is the tale of the death of an abusive step-father. It see’s John Darnielle recalling a rare good time with his step-father at the race track, the emotional battle is so complex and personal. His feelings an array of sadness, anger, happiness and perhaps most chillingly ambivalence, as he recalls how his “sister called at 3am, just last December, she told me that you’d died at last.” Despite all the suffering his step-father caused him, he instantly flicks to his one and only happy memory, proof were it needed that even in death, life is never a simple thing.

Whether it’s seemingly happy pop songs, such as The Shangri-Las Leader Of The Pack or Belle & Sebastian’s We Rule The School, or the more clear sadness of Elliot Smith’s King’s Crossing or Radiohead’s Videotapes; at some point almost all musicians explore the subject of loss, and it rarely fails to strike a chord.

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Frog Eyes are often seen as a catch-all term for the work of singer Carey Mercer, however for the purposes of their latest release they are a four piece band. Carey is joined by drummer Melanie Campbell, pianist Shyla Sheller and bass player Terri Upton. The album also features contributions from Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug and a number of other talented, largely Canadian musicians.

It’s hard to discuss the music of Frog Eyes without instantly homing in on the vocal chords of Mr Carey Mercer. Not least because as so many others have pointed out elsewhere, it’s remarkable that it was less than a year ago he was diagnosed with throat cancer; thankfully his voice and health are fully mended. He still possesses the same unique style, imagine the tone of Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, with the flamboyant enunciations of Future Island’s Samuel Herring. The instrumentation across their latest record is both varied and ambitious. Jazzy flourishes of Rhodes-like pianos, washes of beautiful strings and drums that are more there to add punch to the other instrumentation than to stick strictly to a single rhythm.

Frog Eyes are from Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia in Canada. Victoria is known as “The Garden City” and is ranked in the top twenty cities in the world for quality of life. It is apparently very popular with retirees due to an unusually mild climate, however it also has a large number of students, which might explain why it produces it’s fair share of interesting musicians. The likes of Wolf Parade, Hot Hot Heat and most famously of all Nelly Furtado are all from the city.

Following the demise of his previous band Blue Pine, Carey formed Frog Eyes back in 2001. The band’s debut album, The Bloody Hand came out the following year on Global Symphonic. Their well received second album The Golden River led to a deal with Absolutely Kosher who released two further albums. Their Polaris Prize nominated fourth album Paul’s Tom: A Triumph, came out via Dead Oceans. They then settled on their current home, Paper Bag Records, who released 2013’s Carey’s Cold Spring and are set to release their upcoming sixth album, Pickpocket’s Locket.

Well the music of any man whose musical associates include Destroyer’s Dan Bejar and Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug is almost certainly worth looking into, and on Pickpocket’s Locket, Frog Eyes more than live up to the work of their more famous friends.

The album was conceived on an acoustic guitar, a Martin D-8 for the musical geeks amongst us, which was left to Carey by his father in his will. Carey has spoke of how sitting down with just a guitar and writing these ten songs shaped the way the album sounds, and the album is a homage both to his father and to the power of an acoustic guitar. Not that it’d be clear from listening to the album of course, because whilst written on acoustic, the album is as far from a stripped back affair as records could get. What did strike us on listening though is how organic this record is. Little here needs plugging in and there’s little in the way of electronic embellishments; even the synths here sound old fashioned, the buzzing tones of Joe With The Jam recall the lo-fi electronic exploration of Casiotone For The Painfully, whilst the low-burbling tones of Rip Down The Fences That Fence The Garden are reminiscent of the retro-organ sounds of early Beach House recordings.

The string arrangements are fabulous throughout; one minute they’re huge sweeping crescendos, the next lone plodding double bass, or a solo violin. They add a sense of ambition, at times it takes on a jazzy quality recalling the work of Arc Iris, whilst at other points the arrangements take on the bombast of Arcade Fire, or perhaps more accurately their other fellow Canadian’s The Dears. It’s the albums details that are so impressive. Opening track, Two Girls (One for Heaven and the Other One for Rome), features the most delightful smoky saxophone lick, whilst the albums stand out moment, I Ain’t Around Much has the most beautiful fluttering double bass; the whole track coated with a sense of melancholy, it’s probably the moment where the albums ambitious sonic pallet melds together most comfortably.

Why Not?
The unique vocal delivery, can be a little too much, as if he’s trying to impress more than necessarily do what is best for the song. The lyrics are like an unintelligible puzzle, “when she’s dancing on the dancers lonely stairs”, “floating on the slick of an oil man”, “your fangs are but a page from the book of tough stuff.” Individually, they might sound interesting, but really they’re so cryptic and personal, you can only hope to scrape the surface of what message Carey is trying to make. Still you cannot fault the ambition of the project, and in the moments when it all falls into place, there’s some wonderful pieces of music, they just need a little more space to breathe.

Pickpocket’s Locket is out August 28th via Paper Bag Records. Frog Eyes tour the USA with Destroyer in September, they currently have no UK dates scheduled.

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