Frog Eyes Tears of the Valedictorian

[Absolutely Kosher; 2007]

Styles: Spazz-rock that is never anything but gleefully gratuitous
Others: Blackout Beach, Prancing Cat, Sunset Rubdown, Rapider Than Horsepower, Skeletons and The Kings Of All Cities, Ugly Cassanova

I’m probably supposed to begin this review with an old axiom, right? Well, here ‘goes: Sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward. For an outsider, this would seem to neatly describe the changes to the Frog Eyes sound, which now sees the group pushing Carey Mercer’s vocals away and reigning in the din of his fantastic backing band. But if you want to get picky about it, Tears of the Valedictorian isn’t a regression as much as it is a juke; a jive to the side before an all-out charge. Although Mercer’s voice is now mixed in with his comrades, he’s never sounded more at home in his own songs, and his band are better than ever, continuing Folded Palm’s emphasis on glimmering guitar figures and delightfully obnoxious strains of synth.

And don’t forget the shiv that will always be Frog Eyes’ most potent weapon: Mercer’s song-length rants. If you go into any of his projects — also including the Swan Lake would-be supergroup and Blackout Beach, a purely solo venture — unprepared, Mercer will paint your back porch red with his sharpened throw-dart of a voice, which rambles like latter-day Mike Anderson and hoots and hollers like, um, Dolores Riordan? Combine the force of his vocal exercises with his studious use of language and you have one of the most literary personalities in a flaky indie-rock gene pool. Perhaps he toils too hard to foist his academic wit on the listener, but when you get down to the meat of the matter, Mercer is constructing album-length suites that are, forgive the cliché, a world unto themselves.

All said, comparing his lyric sheet to that of his contemporaries — who all seem to focus on the rigors of war, death, and relationships with little in the way of true poetic ambition — is a real eye-opener. Who gives a dried fig about the borrowed-concept vagaries of “Black Mirror” (ooh, a black mirror, foretelling certain doom, and it “cares not for your dreams” OR “your pyramid schemes” ...OOOOH!) when you can forego on-loan lyrical devices for an entirely original absurdist drama? When’s the last time a ‘big’ indie-rock band clocked shit like this, non-rhymes and all: Oh Dear/ You are the water/ And I lower myself into your water/ like a mealy-mouthed calf that is suckered to slaughter/ Like a green Serpent coiled upon the breast of your daughter?

Yes, I agree, it’s been awhile; though I’m not going to claim a thorough understanding of Mercer’s aims, I can say with surety that his wordsmith-ing consistently gives me a lot of gristle to chew on. It doesn’t go down easy, but your brain will continue to gnaw long after your jaw has locked into place like a stick-shift gear. Speaking of locked into place, did I mention the ensemble cast of Melanie Campbell, Spencer Krug, McCloud Zicmuse, and Michael Rak conquer major ass? No matter your opinion of Mercer’s meow-ing, his supporting cast are second to none. Melanie Campbell has grown so much as a time-keeper over the years, in the process becoming an idiosyncratic presence along the lines of Jeremiah Green circa It’s a Long Drive or Lonesome Crowded West... yes, she’s that good. We all know plenty about Krug’s kooky keyboard kapers, but what of Zicmuse and Rak’s string-based endeavors? Well, in the words of my high-school football coach, “they’re both true winners.”

Individual laudes aside, Tears of the Valedictorian works on so many levels. It adds another hefty, colorful cornea to the Frog Eyes spazz gallery, for one. It also takes a step toward streamlining their sound, which may, in the wrong hands, be considered a faulty premise, but let me assure you, it isn’t; this recording is crystal-clear but far from diamond-decadence. Mercer’s voice is, as mentioned, tapered down a bit, but the vocal subtlety serves to remind us just how effective this unit is after years of touring. In the end, trying to find fault with Tears will leave you gushing, blushing, and ‘shush’ing anyone that tries to bring the old ‘the singer’s annoying’ argument. Fuckers.

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