Whether or not you know the band or its affiliates, Frog Eyes should be slamming onto your radar this month. The group just released their fourth and greatest album, Tears of the Valedictorian (Absolutely Kosher), and are embarking on a well-deserved two-month victory lap.
Opening with a wash of twinkling noise and Mercer's most restrained vocals to date on "Idle Songs," the group usher in their touchstones (Roxy Music, Bowie) only to kick them out on the next song, the muscular and contrapuntal "Caravan Breakers, They Prey on the Weak and the Old." Whether it's the seasick waltz "'Stockades'" or the fluctuating rhythms of "Reform the Countryside," listeners will find themselves absorbed by Mercer and company's strange and wondrous racket.
Mercer, an articulate and jolly fellow, credits the band's lack of presence for the album's success. "When we made this record, we weren't there for every second of it," Mercer said. "It was arranged by us, and the ideas are mostly ours ... but all the grunt work ... has nothing to do with us.
"The actual time spent tracking the record--pressing play and record while the band plays--was probably only about six hours, which is pretty cool. Some bands spend a month making their record."
The time Frog Eyes' spent recording Tears--done in spurts between 2005 and 2006--was packaged between Mercer's work with Swan Lake and a particularly grueling experience on the road, opening for chums Wolf Parade. "All those shows were weird. It was kind of a rough tour. ... I think we just felt kind of beaten up," Mercer said.
Still, that opening slot with Wolf Parade helped Frog Eyes better develop the songs for Tears. Exhibit A is "Bushels," a nine-minute marathon that plays like a history of music in one tune. It changes course nearly every minute, incorporating everything from ballad to rave-up to doo-wop; the song, like the group, has a sense of urgency that is indefinable and enthralling.
"I like that song, because it's emblematic of personal victory," Mercer said. "When we were going away for touring, we needed three songs, and we only had two ... and I always thought it'd be nice to have a longer song that opened up and worked in conjunction, but also against, these blasts of nondynamic chunks of sound."
Live, the song had humble origins that simply evolved with the audience's approval. "Originally, it was only about 4 1/2 minutes, but playing it for all of these audiences, where you sense that the song could go on, really helped us to push it. So, in kind of a sentimental way, I guess I credit the people who were there with us while we played that song for being able to push it into the nine-minute territory."
Inadvertent audience participation aside, Mercer notes a prominent if unintentional thread running through Tears. "There's a pretty loose theme ... but this one was written over the period of three years," Mercer said. "It's not like I saw a particularly riveting performance of King Lear and went home and wrote 12 songs that night ... but I think the title of the record and parts of certain songs show that I'm really interested in pomp and pomposity and the form that rigid speeches take."
By positing such a fiercely critical approach, Mercer understands that he is subject to his own mockery. "That kind of sums up my feelings about playing rock music," Mercer said. "It's such a farce; it's such a premeditated joke. ... As embarrassed and critical as I am about it, I still love it somehow."