Frog Eyes: The Folded Palm

[21 September 2004]

By Adrien Begrand

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Ask a Canadian what they think of when they hear the name, “Victoria, British Columbia”, and you’ll get responses like “flowers”, “old ladies”, “bed and breakfasts”, “gardens”, “yachts”, and “old ladies gardening”. The quaint little city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island would seem the likeliest home of some of Canada’s most eclectic musicians, but slowly, some fascinatingly diverse artists and bands have been emerging from Victoria, for instance, pop chanteuse Nelly Furtado, the eccentric Run Chico Run, and most surprisingly, Frog Eyes. The fact that Frog Eyes, positively the weirdest, scariest indie rock band in Canada today, hail from such a pleasant, sedate, humble little city, is mind-boggling, let alone frightening. Like the mythical Lumberton from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, there must be some scary, scary stuff going on behind Victoria’s closed doors, and Frog Eyes sounds like a band who have stumbled across more than their share of severed ears in those immaculate gardens.

The band’s third album, The Folded Palm, is equally enthralling and confounding, as singer Carey Mercer, keyboardist Michael Rak, bassist Grayson Walker, and drummer Melanie Campbell mine the darkest depths of popular music, providing an impressive, versatile accompaniment to Werner’s crazed vocal stylings. The quartet offers brief glimpses of indie pop and Southern gothic-style country strains (Canadian chanteuse Carolyn Mark makes a guest appearance on one track), but only for an all too tantalizing moment, before you’re dragged back down to the more subterranean, murky tones of organ-driven dirges (shades of Nick Cave), cacophonous, demented folk music of latter-day Tom Waits, and if things weren’t creepy enough, a bit of cabaret, straight from Hell’s floor show. Unlike the great, prodigious Xiu Xiu, the musical arrangements on The Folded Palm are surprisingly rich, as you’re hit often by cascading piano strains, chiming guitars, and unsettling, Captain Beefheart style rhythms, encapsulated perfectly in the fabulous “The Oscillator’s Hum”, a song that would tempt you to describe it as, “gorgeous,” that is, if it were not for Mercer’s insane vocalizing.

It’s that screeching, caterwauling voice of Carey Mercer that will either completely win you over, or send you screaming in the other direction, depending on your tolerance for such highly emotive singing. In a performance that dares to outdo Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, the undisputed king of American indie melodrama, Mercer coos, croons, yells, squeals, cries, and screams, sounding like Bobcat Goldthwait’s evil twin. And if that weren’t enough, his lyrics are something to behold. With all the focus, economy, and comprehensibility of one of those journals you see serial killers leaving behind in suspense movies, Mercer spouts off a 35 minute, stream of consciousness tirade that, despite its highly enigmatic themes, is utterly fascinating, as he often finds himself with having too much to say, adding surreal, unsung “explanations” in parentheses. “Who sings this song?” he rants, “Who breaks my bread? Who calls the brave? Who sings in pools by the river that’s stained? By the pool in the backyard in the pasture I’ll lie with your trembling legs.” By the way he sings those lines, you’re left wondering if those legs are actually attached to a body.

Rarely does such an album with a short running time sound as grandiose and epic in scope as The Folded Palm does. Morbidly, Mercer is never one to leave you feeling happy and content after hearing a Frog Eyes album, and on “Russian Berries but You’re Quiet Tonight”, he concludes the festivities with an ominous phrase, which he keeps repeating psychotically: “You better hold tight because even cancer needs a home.” It’s about as comforting as hearing Dennis Hopper recite Roy Orbison lyrics. Frog Eyes continually teeter from clever to creepy, never allowing the listener to get settled, and that musical tightrope act is what makes The Folded Palm so engaging. It’s anything but a fun record, but in Frog Eyes’ case, that’s a good thing.

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