The Upshot: After 18 years, a brush with death and a touch of holy madness, Carey Mercer is walking through that door to whatever’s next.
By JENNIFER KELLY
Frog Eyes ends its nearly two decade, ten album run much the way it began, with front man Carey Mercer’s frayed voice howling gnostically over slow, luridly colored processionals. Through various line-up changes, label affiliations and cross-collaborations, the band has always been supercharged and visionary. Frog Eyes taps into an allegorical vein whose meaning was never quite apparent, no less so now at the end than it was in 2002’s The Bloody Hand. If anything, Violet Psalms returns to dramatic overload after the comparatively well-behaved and baroque pop Pickpocket’s Locket. There is even, on opener “A Strand of Blue Stars,” a return of the “dinger,” a gong-like percussion instrument that Mercer and his wife Melanie Campbell found at a garage sale in the early aughts and whose microtonal clang has clashed through many, many Frog Eyes songs since.
Mercer is, as always, the wild-eyed, careening, animating force behind Frog Eyes, swooping violently over octave jumps in shamanic abandon. He’s one of those singers who seems to be riding an ungovernable force, just barely staying on top of it, rather than composing and premeditating, though of course he must do that, too. But however carefully crafted the words or melodies may be, there’s an air of anything-can-happen to Frog Eyes songs. They are certainly always haring off in unexpected directions.
He is backed, as always by Melanie Campbell, whose drumming is creative without being showy. Her rhythms bash forward and pull back, they range over unexpected timbres, they anchor the songs without tying them down to conventionalities. They are as much a part of Frog Eyes art as the “whooo-ooo-ooo” that loft crazily skyward or the skewed fairytale scenarios of the lyrics. The rest of the band is also female Terri Upton on bass and Shyla Seller on keyboards, and while these elements support rather than dominate, they are fine and colorful and varied.
But it is Mercer’s protean force, taking multiple, ever changing shapes as he pushes at the edges of melody and sense, that gives these songs life. In the wonderful “Strand of Blue Stars,” he croons that “Sometimes you’ve got to be the door that you walk through that sets you free.” After 18 years of Frog Eyes, a brush with death and a touch of holy madness, Mercer is walking through that door to whatever’s next. Let’s hope he holds it open so we can follow.
DOWNLOAD: “A Strand of Blue Stars”