FROG EYES The Golden River (Absolutely Kosher)
I can remember the moment that I finally got the music of this British Columbia quartet, having had their second album The Golden River on fairly heavy rotation for several weeks to no avail. I was on a rail replacement bus that was wending its way unhurriedly across the hills that connect Northampton with Rugby when my iPod randomly selected something from it, and suddenly Frog Eyes, uh, distinctive brand of pungent, corroded cabaret transformed from a distorted caterwaul into a repository of perverse delights.
Theres enough Captain Beefheart and post-Asylum Years Tom Waits in Frog Eyes sound a thick, primordial junkyard stew garnished with petrol fumes and burning tyres -to suggest it should fall right in the middle of my sonic catchment area. Carey Mercers chewy vocals demand some acclimatising, though, and his delivery renders the bands cryptic lyrics even more opaque. Somehow, though, there comes a point in the listeners relationship with the album well, in this listeners relationship with the album, at least when it suddenly all hangs together with a fragile, fractured logic, a completely conjured soundworld made fleshier through labyrinthine song titles and the complete rejection of any commercial pandering.
Miasma Gardens has a decaying elegance, like old film stock gradually dissolved by the elements, its distant fairground organ suggesting a hall of mirrors-like distortion of more conventional songforms; A Latex Ice Age sounds like its crumbling into the sea in slow motion. Orbis Magnus is built unsteadily upon shifting, rolling waves of guitars, and the clang of a ships bell punctuates Careys fevered ranting on Time Destroys Its Plan At The Reactionary Table. Worlds Greatest Concertos belies its thrift store record bin title with possibly the albums most savage rant, but the mood is soon becalmed by the majestic, if slightly tyrannical, Picture Framing The Gigantic Men Who Fought On Steam Boats, whose final lines, Ill keep on sailing on/Until the rosy pink dawn, bathe the closing minutes of the album in a woozy glow.
But the avant-garde excitement doesnt end there on this Absolutely Kosher reissue, which also contains a dozen bonus tracks collectively known as Emboldened Navigator And The Seagull Dots, allegedly recorded to two-track for beer. Despite their impecunious production in places these earlier recordings possess a measure of clarity that often eludes the fogbound main feature. Amidst a couple of craggier alternates of The Golden River material lurk delights such as The Fruit That Ate Itself (musical box tinklings and the wounded howl of lovesick dinosaurs), I Hope My Horse Dont Make No Sound (a big hit in any parallel universe where melodies are habitually muffled by layers of distortion) and A Song Once Mine Now No Longer Mine (creepy, chilly unease fostered by what sounds like a grotesque mutation of the piano riff from Abbas Money, Money, Money). In fact, the whole discs only real clunker is Libertatia National Lullaby, a collapse of random percussion and keyboard sonar pings.
The Golden River is the kind of album that, initially at least, all sounds the same, not because it does all sound the same but because its so far-flung relative to what musical convention foists upon us that these songs seem to huddle and cower together for warmth. Patience and familiarity will help you eke out gradations of light and shade from within the murk that shrouds them: if youve successfully wrestled with Trout Mask Replica, you can cope with this.
FROG EYES Tears Of The Valedictorian (Absolutely Kosher)
Compared with my previous Frog Eyes experience, their 2003 album The Golden River, the Canadian bands latest offers longer songs with more ornate arrangements, yet without obscuring their essential oddness. Its almost as if theyve pitched up their Waits/Beefheart rumble from cabaret to light opera.
Without wishing to suggest that Tears Of The Valedictorian is shackled together by anything so overarching as a concept, its difficult to pull it apart into individual tracks, perhaps a measure of how successfully it constructs its own hermetically-sealed soundworld. Frog Eyes dont really deal in currencies such as riffs or melodies; instead their songs are tangled birdsnests of keyboards, percussion and guitar, over which Carey Mercer hollers his impenetrable poetry with a sincerity bordering on the evangelical. Its muddy and murky music, but indomitably optimistic with it.
The slurred, whispered campfire folk of The Policy Merchant, The Silver Bay is as uncomplicated as the album gets (i.e. not very), whilst at the other end of the scale lies the nine-minute epic Bushels, a constantly morphing, twisting thing that evolves into a rolling, tumbling froth of crescendos and Careys repeated meta-observation I was a singer and I sang in your home.
The increase in size and scale over their earlier work is hardly some kind of glossy sell out: on the evidence of Tears Of The Valedictorian Frog Eyes are as gloriously idiosyncratic and impervious to the demands of commerce as ever. Its not for everybody, but you can see if its for you by downloading two of the albums nine tracks for free from http://www.last.fm/music/Frog+Eyes/Tears+Of+The+Valedictorian .