Reining in the madness, Frog Eyes sacrifice too much of their enigmatic tension for the sake of refinement.
Carey Mercer's madness is an unnerving spectacle of stunning volatility. On stage or album, his work with Frog Eyes rages unbridled to the threat of ruin. With Tears of the Valedictorian, Mercer attempts to rein in that manic aesthetic. The shift is slight, but still enough to make the album a little less imposing than those that came before it, and not quite as captivating either.
The change is subtle at most. Mercer's frantic strumming still seems to strangle his instrument, and his voice still backflips from histrionic falsetto to menacing grumble. Somehow, though, even these most readily identifiable characteristics are toned down. While his rampant rhythms still propel every song, his hand has grown steadier and never sounds at risk of outrunning the tempo. Just a little less brazen, his vocals are narrower in range and more composed than possessed.
Such refinements sacrifice the contrast between elegance and chaos that gave Frog Eyes their enigmatic appeal. The pandemonium of their most frenzied work has always been offset by regal majesty. Before, the most crazed cacophony could impossibly capitulate into swooning grandeur, but now that disparity just isn't so striking. The dynamic is still in play, but with the edges rounded off, any tension is diminished.
This tamer set of songs is made even more mundane by unusually straightforward production. In another subtly unfortunate deviation, the hum and hiss of their willfully lo-fi past has been abandoned in favor of modestly unobtrusive recording. The studio work is still far from polished, but the atmospheric allure of earlier albums has been lost.
Despite all these criticisms, Tears of the Valedictorian remains as utterly idiosyncratic as any Frog Eyes effort before it. Mercer's creative voice is far too distinct to be rendered humdrum or mediocre. It can hardly be argued that these updates were intended as any kind of cash-in either, as the band is still far from conventionally accessible. Mercer is obviously trying to grow, but his pursuit of controlled chaos compromises too many of his core strengths.
That same restraint rendered Mercer the most mutable member in his collaboration with Spencer Krug of and Dan Bejar as Swan Lake. While Krug and Bejar still came through with their own quirky yet indelible mellifluousness, Mercer proved another monster altogether. His attempts at a more moderate approach only diluted his contributions. Ultimately, Mercer's ugliest moments are also his most flattering, which makes Tears of the Valedictorian a mild disappointment that leaves listeners longing for something more unhinged.