Destroyer & Frog Eyes

Notorious Lightning and Other Works EP

(Merge; 2005)

By Scott Reid | 26 January 2005

True story: just under a year after the release of This Night, Destroyer's Dan Bejar played a solo show in a small club in Toronto called the Horseshoe Tavern. He hadn't been touring at the time; rather, he booked and performed the show to coincide with a wedding he was flying out for--to, as the story had been told to me, "pay for the trip." Now, around that time, Bejar hadn't been touring much and a chance to see him outside of Vancouver didn't come often. What the audience got: Bejar spacing on many lyrics (Gruff Rhys did this a few months later during an impromptu record store gig, but what charm that man has) and rushed versions of nearly every song in his set--many of which he sounded only vaguely interested in revisiting.

To be fair, he often did tour with a band when he toured at all--his This Night crew garnering more than a few nods to a Crazy Horse-style looseness that bordered on being amateur -- and he faired much, much better. Don't think they changed the man much, though; his backing bands over the years seemed to merely play their part, not just performing the songs but enabling his often frustrating live performance. But when he toured last year with Frog Eyes, something completely different happened: not only did Bejar seem comparatively invigorated (as much as a tall, extremely Jewish-looking man with the fashion sense of my grandfather could be), the music drastically transformed. All of the Pet Shop Boys/Casio preset-leanings of Your Blues were pummeled in turn for a tempo and fervor that seemed barely enough to keep Mercer's convulsing body in its wildly entertaining marionette-like motion. I can only assume it ends when he walks off stage.

It was hard to not walk away stunned by the transformation, especially for those that had been bored into a deep coma during his "payin' for my trip back home" solo outings. On the tip of everyone's tongue leaving Lee's Palace in Toronto, as I'm sure mirrored most every other venue they played: "they need to fucking record that." Those who bothered to wait around to meet the guy surely begged it of him, and judging by Carey Mercer's frequent panting during the set, the thought had likely crossed his mind. But did anyone think we'd actually get a studio recording of these new versions?

Maybe they had this planned before the tour; maybe they decided it when they realized how great the chemistry was; or maybe they're responding to fan reaction, something which must've been a new and odd sensation for Bejar, that convinced them to do it. Regardless, it's an highly esoteric dream come true for art-rock lovers with a soft spot for the North, and lord knows we don't get many breaks. If you loved Bejar's return to succinct songwriting on Your Blues but hated the arrangements, you're in luck: though key synth lines are kept intact (the triumphant sweeps of the EP's title track, for instance, but who doesn't get a giddy thrill every time it kicks in?), albeit not as boisterous, this is far more a guitar-bass-&-drums affair with each song's melodies kept loosely intact.

A perfect encapsulation of the live show? Well, not exactly. Some of their best performances were from albums other than Your Blues (the only one touched here), like their magnificent charging of This Night's "The Chosen Few." But what we do get here is the cream of the Blues crop (minus "What Road'), given a much needed second life. Example: "New Ways of Living's" intro loses a bit of its absurd greatness, but with Mercer's unmistakable guitar tone in tow, the song takes on a new, more appositely brash attack for its chorus; given that it takes up so much of the song's three-and-a-half minutes, it's surprisingly effective.

Likewise, "An Actor's Revenge" trades in light prancing for a frenetic expulsion of its This Night-style repetitious sing-along chorus that came across a little too introverted on Your Blues, yet approaches Frank the Tank levels of unrestraint here; even better are Mercer's ever-shifting guitar lines, offering a structural depth missing from the original. "The Music Lovers," presented here in its third studio form, comes far closer to eclipsing the original Sub Pop single than his dumbfounding last attempt; unfortunately, Frog Eyes seem more dedicated to the task than Bejar, and it never fully develops. A contrast to the title track, on which he seems genuinely interested in broadening the song's triumphant-in-the-way-that-"Destroyer's the Temple"-sounded-like-a-victory-march delivery.

The EP's closing tracks are its strangest inclusions: "Don't Become the Thing You Hated" and "Your Blues" are two of his previous record's most sparse (the first half of the latter being a cappella), devoid of the pompous extras that had marred their surrounding tracks. Surely "Oakland to Warsaw" or "It's Gonna Take An Airplane" could've used the strip-down more, but both work decent in their new contexts; "Hated" is as compelling as it was the first time around (for better or worse), and "Blues" gets an added bounce to its desperate, circular steps, though I'm not so sure it's as affecting; its refrain is given a much needed instrumental breadth, but without the strength of the Your Blues version's vocal warmth.

Now, the kind of people that are going to buy this have likely already heard these songs, and as such it's not really an important release for Bejar as much as an answer to all of the shit he'd taken for giving Blues a Final Fantasy-esque atmosphere. It's full of a chemisty missing from his music for years, and for good reason: few bands could suit his non-sequitur leanings better than Frog Eyes. While Mercer could've taken a larger role to great benefit, as he sporadically did live, Bejar makes sure to keep this EP very much, at heart, a Destroyer release instead of a songwriting collaboration or a gimmicky side-project. We can't say for sure at this point if he's turning his back on the cheese--or finally realized he's better off with a backing band that has personality, for that matter--for good, but this EP gives him six good reasons to reconsider.