If we were to take Carey Mercer and his cohorts — members of Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, Wolf Parade, etc. — as a sampling of what Canadian musicians are like, we’d assume everyone who ever picked up an accordion or pan flute north of the border was prolific, virtuosic, impassioned, and a little unhinged. But I guess that wouldn’t be quite statistically sound. Though Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph is Frog Eyes’ Dead Oceans debut, as far as I can tell it’s their sixth full-length overall, the previous LPs having been put out by small Canadian and Californian indies Global Symphonic, Animal World, and Absolutely Kosher.
And if you liked those, you’ll love this. Much of the same Frog Eyes material is here: the frenetic guitar refrains, the slithering keys (even without Spencer Krug performing them anymore), the manic drumming, and Mercer’s voice howling and gurgling around it all. This release feels freer, though — not easier, necessarily, but delivered with a clarity of purpose not quite as muddled, consumption-wise, by sheer weirdness as was their previous LP, Tears Of The Valedictorian, for instance. Which isn’t to say Paul’s Tomb isn’t a weird album. It certainly is, when compared to, like, normal music with singers that don’t sound like they may actually be on the brink of strangling themselves to death behind their microphones. It’s just that there’s more of a familiar rock framework for listeners to latch onto than there ever has been before.
The band starts delivering it immediately. The first few seconds of Paul’s Tomb are about as compelling a rock album beginning as you’ll find, a distorted, crunchy guitar lick and feedback followed by our introduction to Mercer’s characteristic gutpunching holler. The leadoff, “A Flower In A Glove,” is a nine-minute epic that opens up into an almost speak-sung, keyboard-driven rout. Mercer delivers like a frantic preacher, articulating his words in a way that suggests that they run through him from somewhere unbidden, and all he can do is be a conduit for them.
And what words emerge! I was fortunate enough to procure a lyrics sheet and got to read all the verses usually half-obscured by the music. I knew Mercer weaves a mythological world, that he makes rampant use of literary references and puts more than a little syntactical feeling behind his lyrical convictions. What I didn’t know was that I would find a half-stanza in “Styled By Dr. Robert” that reads:
And the glory of economy,
Is when your dwarf shall become a man,
Woe to the night, woe to the night,
Emaciated forester dancing in the moonlight,
Dancing just to stave off the hunger — it’s a hunger where
You want to hit him in the fucking knees.
And then you hit him in the fucking knees!
Or that there would be a line in “Odetta’s War” that commands, “Cast off the fabled leotard, flee the legions of FAKES by the shore.” The fabled leotard!? I’m sold.
Frankly, though, a hard sell’s not really necessary; after listening to other bands in the Mercer/Krug catalog, Paul’s Tomb sounds comfortingly familiar. Especially toward the end of “A Flower In A Glove,” when new addition Megan Boddy’s voice enters, it forcibly recalls the vocal interplay between Krug and Camilla Wynne Ingr in Sunset Rubdown (even though Mercer isn’t in that band). The very ambition of the album secures its home among its melodic brethren.
So undoubtedly it’s Mercer’s vocals that characterize Paul’s Tomb, or any Frog Eyes release. But even if you could bypass his emphatic delivery, how can you ignore the use of words like “messianic” (“The Sensitive Girls”) or “dilettantes” (“Lear, In The Park”)? Under these ejaculations, though, lies a vast web of adeptly intermixed counterpoint instrumental parts, driven by soaring keys, harried guitar, or Melanie Campbell’s insistent drumming. In this way, the idiosyncrasy of Mercer’s vocal style might do the band as a whole a disservice, running the risk of driving away casual listeners that just might not be able to hang on through the breakers. Well. As Jane Austen writes in Pride and Prejudice, “Such squeamish youths as cannot bear to be connected with a little absurdity are not worth your regret.”