The Bloody Hand/The Golden River
bsolutely Kosher is ruining an opportunity for some perfectly good historical revisionism here. If they’d waited another 15 years to re-release these first two Frog Eyes discs, 2002’s The Bloody Hand and 2003’s The Golden River, then we music scribes could’ve wet ourselves talking about the “early-aughts Canadian indie rock explosion,” how the bands stormed America with their scarves and wines and brandies, how all the records were muscular, Malkmus-ian gold. “The mid-80’s returned,” we’d say, “and the Mats and the Minutemen and R.E.M. all got their upper latitudes on.”
And Frog Eyes? “The great under-appreciated band of the time, a catalyst for the entire scene, and, as these crucial early records prove, as talented and moving as any of their more recognized peers.” And no one would’ve known any better, because the kiddies buying indie rock records would’ve been stacking Yu-Gi-Oh cards when these discs were originally issued.
The timing of these re-issues, however, forces us to accept these records on their own terms. Since the release of The Bloody Hand and The Golden River Frog Eyes has acted as a bit of a sleeping giant on the indie scene, They backed Destroyer balladeer Dan Bejar on the strange Your Blues tour, which yielded the collaborative Notorious Lightning and Other Works oddity. They also donated sometime keyman Spencer Krug to the infinitely more popular Wolf Parade.
The group trades in nothing less than pure Beefheart-ian squall, with Carey Mercer’s soulful balladry mutilated often times beyond the point of recognition. There is no stasis in the band’s love: The elements that make up a Frog Eyes song are simple, but they never stand still, organs and guitars and percussion snaking over and through and around each other.
The opening track on The Golden River, “One in Six Children Will Flee in Boats” begins with the stout, intense Mercer drawing in a huge breath. It’s Mercer riling his courage before tackling the monstrosities his band has created: the huge, manic punk rock songs, but also the rarely credited murky psychedelia—the rotting floorboards they use to bridge their terrors. “Libertatia’s National Lullaby” ends The Bloody Hand accordingly, and “A Latex Ice Age” provides a musty breather during The Golden River. The band is often in danger of succumbing to histrionics, and these slighter, tethered moments are moldy pockets of oxygen. The bonus material, including a buried collaboration with Krug, also serves as a respite. Looser and thornier than the album tracks, “I Hope My Horse Don’t Make No Sound” nakedly display influences (hello, Nuggets!) and offers slightly less suffocating orchestrations.
Frog Eyes are nothing if not tiring, and while their schizophrenia is undoubtedly the source of their power, it doesn’t make stringing 43 Frog Eyes songs together any easier. Their wide nets ensure some mimicry, and they at times sound like a Swordfishtrombones cover band without the necessary charisma. Newbies should start slow, so give the slight edge to The Golden River, its tightly reined anarchy allowing Mercer’s constructs to glow a slightly more menacing green.
Two summers ago, during an appearance backing Destroyer at Detroit’s Stormy Records, Mercer angered the store owners—venerable ambient rock couple Windy & Carl—by essentially refusing to turn his guitar down, a blunt reminder that amid Frog Eyes’ art-damaged convulsions lies a rock ‘n’ roll band fully capable of music’s simple pleasures: volume, chaos, and reedy intensity. The group’s sound had already tired by that point—2004’s The Folded Palm was surprisingly limp—but Mercer’s educated hedonism kept things fresh. That their spirit shines brightly through these albums’ dense, hurried arrangements is Frog Eyes’ greatest charm, and the element that assures them a place amongst their more celebrated peers, historical revisionism or not.