Frog Eyes Pickpocket’s Locket

[Paper Bag; 2015]

Styles: folk-rock, toning it down?
Others: Blackout Beach, Swan Lake, Destroyer, Wolf Parade

Pickpocket’s Locket might just be the best Frog Eyes album yet. Some might not consider it to be, especially coming after Paul’s Tomb: a Triumph and Carey’s Cold Spring, two fully developed, excellent records. However, I still feel I can say it without feeling dishonest.

But I want to speak about differences, because stylistic and thematic changes from album to album seem to go against the nature of a band like Frog Eyes. Ten years ago, one couldn’t have been blamed for predicting a consistent literary quasi-punk career for the band, a rougher, louder Destroyer or Wolf Parade. But beginning either with The Tears of The Valedictorian or Paul’s Tomb, Carey Mercer’s rock band (contrasted with his solo work as Blackout Beach or his group Swan Lake with fellow members of the Canadian Triumvirate Dan Bejar and Spencer Krug) accessed a mercurial quality seemingly unfit for a singular voice and peculiar temperament like Mercer’s. Tears introduced a more explicit pop skill, one that had been hiding in the welcomed roughness of his earlier works; Paul’s Tomb fulfilled and surpassed the promises made in Frog Eyes’s earlier discography and stands as a thoroughly uncorny record of religiosity and conceptual intratextuality; and Carey’s Cold Spring, more than diversifying Mercer’s approach as much as its predecessors, proved definitively that Frog Eyes is a band for the ages, about as far from an indie rock novelty as can be.

Pickpocket’s Locket, written on an inherited acoustic guitar following the death of Mercer’s father, is an album instrumentally unlike almost anything Mercer has done in Frog Eyes. It feels warm, with pedal steel, piano, saxophone, violins. Mercer sings with the same fire, his words are of the same kind as always — that is, ornate, replete with names, highly symbolic, biblical — but like the instruments behind his voice, he seems somehow warmer, less thorny, less ascetic. While this warmth (after a Cold Spring?) is obvious, fans of Mercer’s wordplay will miss nothing here: more than ever, he can wrap poetry into melody, fit too many syllables into a line as if they belong there, until they do.

“Two Girls (One for Heaven and the Other One for Rome)” opens the album as if on a mission to foreground the band’s new sound, with insistent (though restrained) drums, a saxophone winding in and out of verse and chorus, and plinking piano. Everything is immediately different. There are no sharp, distorted guitars here anymore. Everything feels different — everything, that is, except Mercer’s surrealist sermons and inimitable vocalizations. When they come in, they act as a comfort: a new pair of shoes, same feet.

The songs are shorter than usual for Frog Eyes, hovering around three or four minutes (excepting the unabashedly pretty closing track, “Rip Down The Fences That Fence The Garden”), but they sacrifice none of the usual depth. The avalanche vocal performance on “Crystal Blip” doesn’t leave Mercer tongue-tied, but it gives him opportunity to work the old muscles used constantly on The Folded Palm or Paul’s Tomb. He’s a wordy singer, but he’s good at it. And when the fiddle comes in, “out of place” is the last phrase one would use to describe it. Mercer is toning nothing down about his performances here. Throughout the album, the softer hues of the band serve not to pull Mercer down to their level, but quite the opposite: he is elevated and energized, his voice freed from the propulsive and distorted sound Frog Eyes had gotten used to. A cleanliness defines most of these songs, a clarity the band wears well.

Although warmer, almost folk-rock, Pickpocket’s Locket is as visceral an experience as any Mercer project, albeit in a new way. Frog Eyes is experimenting here, which feels odd to say about a band whose entire career has been an exercise in stretching the limits of a conservativizing indie rock. There is no rule against my saying this: Pickpocket’s Locket might just be the best Frog Eyes album yet.

Links: Frog Eyes - Paper Bag

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