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Frog Eyes - Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph

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Artist: Frog Eyes

Album: Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph

Label: Dead Oceans

Review date: Apr. 28, 2010

To say that Frog Eyes are fond of contradictions is an understatement. Their first tours were characterized by moments that were less jarring than simply surreal: singer/guitarist Carey Mercer summoning furious waves of emotion while seemingly rooted to one spot, then following songs with highly literate yet irreverent stage banter. (Maybe less literate than simply literary -- Mercer has contributed to an F. Scott Fitzgerald-inspired issue of McSweeney’s, after all.) Then came, at set’s end, a very formal curtain call. The band occupies a particular corner of the rock world: they’ve toured with both Destroyer and Xiu Xiu, and they could be called contemporaries of both -- the lyrical esotericism of the former and the unfettered freneticism of the latter. But really, they don’t sound like anyone.

Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, their fifth album, offers a subtle redefinition of the elements. After a manic pace of releasing music (one album per year from 2002 to 2004), Mercer has become more languorous. And while Paul’s Tomb doesn’t represent a huge stylistic break for the band -- Mercer’s rapid-fire guitar playing and ecstatic shouts are still present here -- its sense of pace suggests that the band has acquired a newfound attention to detail. They’re also, as suggested by 2007’s Tears of the Valedictorian, growing fonder of longer lengths: three of the nine songs here clock in at over seven minutes, with an average length of well over five apiece. Longest of these is the opener, “A Flower in a Glove,” which begins in the way one might expect from a Frog Eyes song (rumblings, urgent shouts, guitar fuzz, steady drumming). Soon enough, however, those humming amplifiers have segued into the drone of a keyboard, the mood moving from panicked to atmospheric and even, if briefly, majestic. “Odetta’s War” has a similar structure, a glistening riff and a pulsing drumbeat playing give-and-take with Mercer’s proclamations and exhortations.

There’s also the expanded guitar palette. The briefest song here, “Lear, In the Park,” has at its center a wavering guitar part that recalls Bill Frisell’s explorations of ambient Americana. “Lear in Love,” too, ends on a note of lyrical repetition: voices singing in unison the words “Right, right, right, she’s all right.”

It’s an album of give and take, of shifts in dynamics both unsettling and enlightening -- much like its title, in fact, which continues the Frog Eyes tradition of playing with archetypes. You’ve got death and exaltation, followed by a sly wink at rock history. Not a bad set of tools for making smart, defiant music.

By Tobias Carroll

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