Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Aborted Frog Eyes Review From Last Year

I tried to write a review last year of Frog Eyes' latest record. Below is what I came up with. It made me realise I wasn't a music writer.

Frog Eyes - Paul's Tomb
(Dead Oceans)

I visited Frog Eyes' home town of Victoria, British Columbia once. Like almost no other place I've been it struck me as a city that longs for history. It has one already, of course, but you get the feeling that the past it posesses isn't quite the past it desires. Victoria longs for a grand and sweeping past, a past of deep traditional and historical significance.

And so it overreaches itself in a constant quest for something it supposes can simply be created. This is the new world after all. They were told it would be possible.

But, predictably, Victoria gets it all wrong. A postmodern Baudrillian similacrum if ever there was one - fake plastic stone mansions, fairytale horse drawn carriages and double decker buses fight for the attention of your eye as you sit taking afternoon tea in the shadow of the legislative parliament building of the troubled province of British Columbia, Canada.

The irony presents itself that the dream of pushing westward simply results in a historical homesickness, an overpowering nostalgic longing for what has been left far, far behind. And the quest to re-produce it is a difficult, problematic and dangerously distracting one.

One can't help but see Frog Eyes' and their main man Carey Mercer as a product of this environment. And certainly in this sense Mercer has done his home town proud; if there is to be a monument constructed - a common reference used in Frog Eyes' music - then it would be erected to him, right in Victoria's faux-historic town centre.

Frog Eyes have dug deep into an old European sensibility that is almost entirely absent in contemporary European bands themselves. And Europe's just the start. Mercer is often found to be quoting the old testement, the torah, even ancient Chinese wisdom and what's more, unlike his hometown, one feels that he really gets it.

Consequently, Frog Eyes are a band without easy contemporary comparison - as the references swirl, it becomes impossible to place them easily in any point in history and in that sense of course they're far more contemporary than most bands.

And make no mistake the contemporary is very definitely a concern of Mercer's - he might be singing about kings, saints, hunters and even an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in 14th century, but Mercer's history book is a tool with which we can probe the present. Quite unlike Victoria's dazzling sheen of fake old world charm - which seeks to obliterate the present. Mercer is using this old world wisdom to shine a bright beam of light on current problems troubling British Columbia as a whole.

Check out their most recent press photo - what exactly is happening here? Is this just coincidence that the members of the band are presented as blinded to (or even by) their immediate surroundings. "We are the enemies of our light, and we command them to fall upon their swords," Mercer sings on 'Lear In Love' and one can't help but see this light as something evil, authoritarian and made to blind its subjects to their imediate reality.

Certainly a case could be made that this light is anologious to the massive PR campaign that draped the whole province in a glossy sheen so that it could present itself to the world for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Mercer was extremely vocal about the infringment of artist rights by the Vancouver Olympic commitee, highlighting the issue in this excellent Op-Ed piece in Stereogum.

But artist rights and even the Olympics themselves are just a a trivial issue compared to the real problems that beset British Colombia. Mercer seems to refer to them directly in a recent interview with the blog, making following hard-hitting statement:

"I write now about ignoble and debased hunting. I can't take this world: it's acidic and corrosive and it eats women. I live in a region that consumes and kills women and no one knows what to say or what to do. I write these words through a veil of tears, thinking about a highway of tears in my province where so many women have disappeared. I do not mean to suggest that all men are killers; I do mean to suggest that patriarchy is a killer. I do not know what to say or what to do. I am not entirely sure if writing about these things is the thing to do."

'The Highway of Tears' Mercer is referring to is Highway 16, that winds it way through the entire province. Since 1969, at least 32 women, many of them aboriginal, have been killed or suspiciously disappeared along a 500-mile stretch of the road.

Add to this the extremely disturbing case of Robert Pickton, a man who claims to have aducted and murdered 49 women (mainly of whom were prostitutes of native origin) and disposted of their bodies on his pig farm. Pickton is, thankfully, behind bars but investigations continue into this stomach churning and grisly case.

But although Pickton is in jail serving time with no hope of release - women still frequently disappear from Vancouver's notorious Lower East Side. And it's in the shadow of these disturbing societal shocks the album's concerns burst urgently to life. When Mercer sings that the female protagonist of the title track - "Donna", as he calls her - is "never going to get through" this is not just a literary construction, this is really happening.

The second song on the record - 'Sensitive Girls' - is most forthright in addressing a major British Columbia problem - the drug and prostitution problem of the lower east side in Vancouver. A part of town that Frog Eyes are more than familiar with. In fact, I first saw them playing live at a venue smack bang in the heart of this painful place. East Hastings and the surrounding area is a decaying urban zone (the ambient recordings on Godspeed, You Black Emperor's track 'East Hastings' where captured there) and it's full of broken down hotels, boarded up store fronts inhabited most obviously by addicts, beggers and prostitutes:

"But do you really love this place?

And your penchant for drugs shall ensure that you will always
Love this place,

And your penchant for drugs shall surely end in something close to ruinous
You don't need Cassandra to gaze over the edge

Deep-boned readers and community leaders all notice the stumble in your gait,
Do you really love this place?

You don't need Cassandra to gaze over the edge,

But you do need to get yourself out of the doom of this zone;
For there is nothing mystic or storytelling about this zone."

And consequently just when it seems Mercer might be assuming the role of moral judge or artist profiteer - he draws the line full circle around even his work and rebukes even himself. 'Paul's Tomb' is an album riddled with struggle so why should it stop at the boundry of its creator's inner self.

Sonically too - the struggle is present. Push and pull. Frog Eyes are still a band seemingly on the edge of falling apart on every single song they write. They're still a storm of treble - a howling gale punctuated by clanging alarum bells of shredding guitar and drums of oar-like rythmn. The listener is lashed to the mast, a turner-esque witness to the savage power and beauty of the waves that crash upon the deck.

But the power here in this record is not its sonics - no matter how difficult they may be on the ear at times. The power in this record comes from the challenge that Mercer makes to the listener. The challenge to look at our world - in all its painful reality - and realise that it's up to us to change it and stop the injustice that is all too easy to ignore. We have the power to help the vulnerable women and oppressed minorities - and read correctly this record is a both a powerful wake-up and an invitatation to do just that.

The tomb is not built for the past - it's meant for the present. The past is far enough away to be allowed to exist and to be showcased even. The present, however, is much too painful and inconvenient to be allowed to escape, and as a consquence it must be buried.

Frog Eyes' triumph is that they don't allow this to happen. And even as they toil they spot a chink of light...

"Wretched palms, violent psalms, violet fades from the cheek of my babe,
I shall cover you and swaddle you in Eden's last light,

I shall hope for the end of dark, dark days."


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