Much like his ever prolific BFF, Spencer Krug, Frog Eyes’ manic ringleader Carey Mercer has finally returned to his day-job after taking time off for a couple of rewarding sojourns: first with supergroup Swan Lake (a trio that includes Krug and Dan Bejar of Destroyer) and then for his solo project Blackout Beach. Regardless of where he’s hanging his hat on any particular day, Mercer’s singular voice (literally and figuratively) remains a constant on everything he does. Arguably, this makes the whole concept of “side projects” pretty pointless for a guy like Mercer because no matter what alias he’s working under, they all sound pretty similar on account of his bracing idiosyncrasies.
Prior to the last Frog Eyes opus, 2007’s Tears of the Valedictorian, the band’s catalogue consisted almost entirely of brief, spastic songs, but Tears was stocked with labyrinthine, caterwauling epics like “Caravan Breakers” and “Bushels”. Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph continues this trend toward prog-like pomposity with four (of nine) songs passing the six-minute mark. Although they sometimes feel a minute or two longer than need be, I’m all in favor of Mercer’s move towards expansive songwriting. Giving his tightly wound tunes room to breathe has only made him a more formidable talent, but still an underrated one.
Paul’s Tomb features another rare occurrence in the Frog Eyes oeuvre: moments of genuine serenity. It’s not much, but the shimmering instrumental “Lear, In the Park” and the brooding, buzzy “Violent Psalms” are smartly placed in the album’s sequencing to provide calm amongst all the bursts of violent glee. Of course, Mercer’s sputtering wail is a big reason why “beauty” is uncommon in his work. He is undeniably an acolyte of men like Black Francis and Tom Waits, but he can tame his voice when the song demands it.
The grandiose opener “A Flower in a Glove” unfurls over nine minutes and each one feels absolutely necessary. Due to Mercer’s tendency to compose songs that are constantly swelling and cresting, every moment feels positively triumphant. This undulating deluge of slashing guitar, surging synth and crashing drums is a trademark move played to great effect not just here, but throughout the album. It’s also on these epic tracks that Mercer really unleashes the full range of his possessed vocal cords. He slides quite effortlessly from demure purr to frothing howl in a split second. Admittedly, it can be grating on virgin ears, but, chances are, if you’re reading this review, you probably love the dude’s voice as much as me.
For a band as consistent as Frog Eyes, its difficult assigning superlatives to any particular album of theirs. If Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph is not their best album, it’s certainly a close second (Tears of the Valedictorian remains their high-water mark for me). However, I do feel confident calling Paul’s Tomb the band’s most cohesive and expansive LP. Obviously, I’m rankled a bit by the fact that Mercer & Co. remain an under-championed lot, and I (cynically) doubt Paul’s Tomb will turn the tide much. In the meantime, consider me steadfastly on Team Mercer.