At the Media Club on Sunday, June 29
How do you solve a problem like Frog Eyes? Critically lauded by all the right publications, adored by the tastemaking armies of bearded cognoscenti, and yet for some people utterly inaccessible. It’s not just that people don’t “get” the Victoria-based group; it’s more that it provokes such extreme reactions. You either love Frog Eyes or you spend shows being maddened by frontman Carey Mercer’s vocal tics and opaque lyrics.
On Sunday night, the quartet dropped by the thankfully air-conditioned Media Club, fresh from a tour of North America, and found itself playing to a smallish crowd of loyalists, augmented by some casual drinkers who just wanted to get out of the heat.
First up, however, was Victoria’s Chet, which shares a member with Frog Eyes in guitarist and singer Ryan Beattie. Chet is criminally underrated; that its 2007 album Fight Against Darkness was never recognized as the masterpiece that it is remains hard to fathom. As the three-piece treated the crowd to its newly stripped-down lineup (cellist Emily Gooden having moved back east a few months ago), what infuriated even more was that the sound in the room was jacked up to ear-splitting levels. It wasn’t necessary, especially since Chet delivered a dreamy pastiche of pop, country, and blue-eyed soul, all sung by a man seemingly channelling the ghost of Edith Piaf.
It’s clear that Beattie’s time with Frog Eyes has changed his style. Indeed, he has turned his voice into a wild, unpredictable instrument capable of both lump-in-the-throat-inducing gorgeousness and disorienting oddity. Three new songs were on the set list and, if they were anything to go by, Chet is moving in the direction of warm, Everly Brothers–style country, by way of wolves baying at the moon.
And then there was the inevitability of Frog Eyes. Mercer and his bandmates began without spectacle—the first hint that the group has evolved over the past few years. Though Mercer is still a terribly idiosyncratic performer and drummer Melanie Campbell remains a frustratingly simplistic player, there’s no denying that Frog Eyes is making the best music of its career. The passion Mercer throws into his vocals is still evident, but now, having stripped away the myriad tics and yelps of previous years, the freakiness he exhibits seems more genuine.
Musically, Frog Eyes is still a trip to Weirdsville. Mercer throws his head back at the start of almost every song, unleashing a Celtic-style a cappella baritone from his barrel chest, after which the buzzing and soaring guitars kick in and the frontman goes into some unknowable fervour. When it works, as on the impassioned “Reform the Countryside” and “Idle Songs”, both from last year’s Tears of the Valedictorian, it’s kind of astonishing to watch a man give so much to a generation that’s aloofly obsessed with irony. But when Mercer starts his trancelike spazzing, it not only becomes too much, it’s also hard to watch.
Even if you count yourself among Frog Eyes’ detractors, you can’t dispute the fact that the band has improved significantly since 2003’s The Golden River. Beattie is a big part of this shift, with his guitars adding layers of unexpected influences—Motown, Television, Polynesia—to the din. If only his own band and songwriting got as much exposure.