By Alexandra Jones
They’ve been around for eight years and five acclaimed albums, but Canada’s Frog Eyes may have just figured out the power of music. Their newest, Paul’s Tomb, was called “a great example of everything they do right” by one of our reviewers last month. This month, Alex Jones has gotten to the bottom of singer Carey Mercer’s cathedral-like masterpiecing of the album as it came to be, with the band, as he puts it, dying after each studio session. And as Alex puts it, this process gave Paul’s Tomb it’s four dimensions.
Two years ago, Frog Eyes’ Carey Mercer began to think differently about music.
“I played a show in a small town on Vancouver Island where I live. It’s a very working man’s town. I just felt a real kind of fondness for the audience. The audience was made up of kind of local kids who don’t get to see bands too much, and then drunks at the end of the bar, and people who had spent three weeks in a fish camp who had come in to just party. And the fondness kind of turned into this idea that my singing could actually – we could go somewhere together. And it completely worked.”
Not an easy feat for one of the more polarizing outfits in Canada’s ranks of indie bands. The music of the Victoria, British Columbia-based quartet could be described as jagged, dissonant, aggressive, tortured – and incredibly compelling, and frequently joyous. But Mercer’s vocals tend to sound like a hippopotamus dying in pain, or some kind of male banshee – within the same line of literate, eerie lyrics.
“It was so scary at first, like Oh my God, I’m gonna get knifed by that guy who’s 300 pounds and just wants to hear a Metallica cover,” Mercer recalls. “But by the end these old guys were doing hillbilly dancing on the tables, stompin’ and hollerin’, the kids were just in the greatest moods, and I felt like the singer’s role, [the singer’s] responsibility, was not to piss in peoples’ faces but actually take the audience somewhere, to kind of [an] otherworldly space. And I think that was the first moment I understood music. After playing it for eight years or whatever.”
This realization seems to have influenced the songwriting on Frog Eyes’ fifth LP, Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, out this past April on Dead Oceans. It’s not so different from prickly past masterpieces like 2007’s Tears of the Valedictorian. But the transitions are smoothly contoured, the energy of the performance calibrated for connection rather than catharsis.
“The fundamental songwriting process, the idea of Frog Eyes, hasn’t changed that much. Because for me, it’s always interesting, always appealing, to try and stuff as many ideas into a song as you can,” Mercer explains. Now, he says, those same ideas are built into a larger space: a nine-minute framework, say, rather than compressed into dense two-minute chunks.
Paul’s Tomb is bookended by two long, multipart tracks, but it’s the middle section of the album that the additional sonic space and transitional nuance can be heard. “Lear, in the Park”‘s gently cascading guitar serves as a two-minute instrumental meditation between the twitch and howl of “Rebel Horns” and mini-opus “Styled by Dr. Roberts.” “Roberts” shifts from snatches of a Springsteen-like anthem to a slow-churning section, peaking with a twisting, proggy guitar section and a quick coda in which Mercer sounds like he’s, well, singing.
Mercer speaks of the new record in terms of a quest accomplished. “The thing I’m really proud about Paul’s Tomb is that it was even made. We didn’t have a stable lineup since 2005, really. To me it really is the sound of just holding on. Holding on to the idea that Frog Eyes needs to make another record. And we did. And we’ll make another one, too. It was a very hard record to make, though, because we were always having new people come in and come out.”
Frog Eyes’ membership has crystallized now with Mercer, Campbell, Ryan Beattie on guitar, and most recent addition Megan Boddy on vocals. But Paul’s Tomb was recorded live in three separate one-day studio sessions with a different incarnation each time. The band – whatever its membership that day – focused on recording songs in batches of three.
“It’s kind of an interesting way to make a record. You put it together piece by piece,” Mercer says. “It’s almost like the way that people build cathedrals. You work on the cathedral, and then you die, and you never see the cathedral in its finished state. So the band would work on three songs, and then the band would die because someone would leave. And they would never see or hear the final product until the record was actually done. [Later] we’d send it to our buddy who was playing with us at the time.”
This tactic – or happy accident – adds a fourth dimension to Paul’s Tomb: time. Boddy joined later in the recording process, and two-thirds of the way through the record – after following the music’s craggy leaps and portentous interludes – we’re jolted out of our noise-reverie by her clear, birdlike voice. While Mercer has worked with female vocals in his pre-Frog Eyes project, Blue Pines, and on Blackout Beach’s Skin of Evil, it’s still jarring – and a little thrilling – to hear Boddy’s clear tones paired with what he calls his “beastly, boarlike voice.”
In the end, Mercer says, he anguishes more over the darker, more cerebral music he releases as Blackout Beach. “I’m not very critical when it comes to Frog Eyes,” he says. “Just, does it have heart? Does it bleed? Is there joy? Is there pain? Something like that.”