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Frog Eyes - Violet Psalms Music Album Reviews

Frog Eyes - Violet Psalms Music Album Reviews
On what the band has said is its final album, Frog Eyes sound galvanized by the prospect of bowing out, resulting in their strongest record in years.

Frog Eyes are a great band fated to be underrated: acclaimed but not canonized, productive but not prolific, established but not famous. They have never enjoyed the crossover success of indie-rock stars Spencer Krug (a former member) or Dan Bejar (a frequent collaborator), though they aren’t exactly languishing in obscurity, either. They are the kind of reliable stalwarts who release an album every two or three years to mild but certain praise—just consistent enough to take them for granted. If, as the band insists, Violet Psalms is to be their final record, “underappreciated” seems bound to be their legacy. We will miss Frog Eyes when they’re gone.

We nearly lost them once before—permanently, and for more harrowing reasons. In the fall of 2013, two days after completing Carey’s Cold Spring, lead singer, guitarist, and frontman Carey Mercer was diagnosed with throat cancer, a revelation that would keep the band off the road for years and cast the album unavoidably in the light of grim circumstance. Mercer has since recovered; their follow-up, 2015’s Pickpocket’s Locket, was recorded in part while Mercer underwent radiation treatment, and the resulting music had a surprisingly sprightly, playful exuberance, given his condition. It is a cruel irony that Frog Eyes are poised to disband so soon after evading tragedy—especially given that Mercer re-emerged as, in his own words, “a stronger singer now than I ever was.”

As an ending, Violet Psalms is the last testament of a band that even after 17 tenacious years remains relevant and indispensable. That it is also the strongest Frog Eyes album since 2007’s sprawling rock epic Tears of the Valedictorian is a happy concurrence. Or perhaps Mercer and his talented bandmates—drummer Melanie Campbell, bassist Terri Upton, and keyboardist Shyla Seller—were galvanized by the prospect of bowing out and invigorated every stroke of this record with dying-breath intensity and care. Either way, Violet Psalms feels concentrated and energized, more aggressively frenetic than the band has sounded in years. As endings go, it is more raging than going gentle.

Mercer has described the recording of Violet Psalms as an effort to return to the beginning. “We were trying to pretend it was our first record,” he has said, aspiring to the freedom felt “when there’s no expectation that anyone will actually listen.” It was recorded in the basement of the house Mercer shares with Campbell in Victoria, British Columbia, and is absent some of the more extravagant guest contributions notable on previous releases, such as the florid string arrangements Krug provided on Pickpocket’s Locket. Yet this is not the back-to-basics album suggested by that account of its making. These songs feel distinctly robust. The production is rich and detail-heavy; the instrumentation is elaborate and diverse. Even the reverb sounds strangely ornate.

Opener “A Strand of Blue Stars” begins with much the same distorted sprawl as “A Flower in a Glove,” the nine-minute introduction to Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, and Frog Eyes aficionados will feel on familiar ground as Mercer exhorts the listener to “Be the fire/Be the ruler/Be the squire,” with cryptic verve. But “A Strand of Blue Stars” never wends its way into the curlicues of noodling one expects of a Frog Eyes barn-burner; in fact it doesn’t digress at all, and comes to a close after a sensible four and a half minutes, with renewed and surprising focus. Mercer’s songs are often complex to the point of being elusive, at times meandering into chaos. Here his efforts feel distilled and lucid. The songs throughout are more legible and coherent than ever without sacrificing any of their ferocity or manic, vibrant energy.

“Idea Man” has the brisk zeal of a pop song, its eponymous hook crashing against the waves of Campbell’s crisp snare as ethereal backing vocals wave hello to “daughters in the sand.” “Don’t Sleep Under Stars,” meanwhile, brings out more of the propulsive rock’n’roll enthusiasm that has occasionally earned Mercer comparisons to Bruce Springsteen: His cries of “Don’t rock under the sun!” put him unmistakably in Boss territory, which you can hear him fairly delighting in. And the yearning, angst-ridden childhood battle cry “Itch of Summer Knees” (a quintessential Frog Eyes title) careens ahead with a sugar rush of synthesizer and guitar, as Mercer imagines himself a 13-year-old going crazy in a suffocating place. “I abhor this town!” he wails, the sad lament swallowed up in a whirl of reverb and distortion.

Through it all, that wail remains the centerpiece: the irreplicable signature touch that defines the Frog Eyes sound. Mercer’s singular voice, nightmare-bent and horror-pained, has put him in league with such eccentric vocalists as Tom Waits and Frank Black, and he shares with them the status of the truly inimitable. That his voice survived throat cancer undiminished is all the more extraordinary. It’s what gives Violet Psalms its otherworldly power—especially on its two final songs, “Unconscious Missive” and “Pay for Fire,” heartening demonstrations of Mercer’s expressiveness and range. His falsetto yawp on the last song, which finishes with a maelstrom of electric guitar and Mercer’s mysterious, moving declaration that “hell is the sun,” concludes as a showcase of Frog Eyes’ strengths. It’s a poignant end for a band never accorded their proper due—until, perhaps, after they are gone.

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