Tears of the Valedictorian
onsistency: It’s only a virtue if you’re not a screw-up. Frog Eyes is nothing if not maddeningly consistent. Carey Mercer and Co. are roughly speaking the exact same band they were when their first two albums, The Bloody Hand and The Golden River (reissued with tons of swag last year), suggested greatness without ever coming particularly close to it. But when 2004’s The Folded Palm crossed the line between “We have a signature sound” and “All of our songs sound like Captain Beefheart fucking the Ramones in a tar pit” and Mercer’s contributions sunk any potency Swan Lake ever had, his ceiling as an artist was lowered considerably. And I was more than ready to read last rights to Frog Eyes for Tears of the Valedictorian, but Mercer’s gone and pulled a coup: he constructed a taut, concise Frog Eyes album that retains the band’s signature sound without delving into repetition or trope.
At their best, Frog Eyes recreate the feeling of the uncomfortable, panicky moment after you’ve tripped but before you hit the pavement. Mercer leaves violent first impressions; Frog Eyes songs start without extended introductions and give you the nauseating feeling that you are not ready for this song to begin. The band continues to tumble valiantly down flights of stairs, but Tears does so with more control and purpose than ever before.
Tears, more than anything, is beautifully constructed, clocking in at a lean 36 minutes, relying on a group of punchy, brief songs sandwiched by two epic tracks—the seven-minute “Caravan Breakers, They Prey on the Weak and Old” and the nine-minute “Bushels”—that make Play-Doh out of Frog Eyes’ mutant-rock. Equally important, Tears is a phenomenally produced record, one that drags the band’s organ fetishism out of the mire. See, for instance, “Evil Energy, the Ill Twin of…” whose flighty keyboard workout would’ve threatened to overtake and distort the track, but instead rings evenly amongst Mercer’s squawk and the song’s trebly cymbal aerobics.
“Bushels” dominates the back-end of Tears, with Mercer apparently taking cues from Swan Lake collaborator Dan Bejar as his trolls alternately pound out aggressively descending piano chords and limp back to the wings, giving Mercer more space than he’s ever had to warble his mysticisms. There are remarkable nods to regular ol’ rock band dynamics—check the ascendant guitar solo, the group’s first—before Mercer wails “I was the singer” like a kindergarten Bowie kicking over block castles.
The most charming aspect of Tears is how few new fans it will pick up for the band: it is simultaneously the most resplendent, accomplished record the band has made, with all kinds of songs—“Eagle Energy”’s drawn-out reverberations, “The Policy Merchant, the Silver Bay”—that retain the worst, most self-indulgent aspects of one of underground rock’s most consistently imperfect bands. Mercer still sings too intensely to ever establish interesting lyrical strands, and the whole album sounds a lot like Hunky Dory played in double-time. The difference? The standard flotsam is shorter and snuggles up more comfortably with the meat and potatoes. Frog Eyes were probably never destined for crossover stardom—nay, Mercer seems to be righteously refusing it—but Tears re-excites their formula for anyone willing to put up with their cross-eyed squall.