The Folded Palm
(Absolutely Kosher; 2004)
By Sean Ford | 14 June 2004
In this wacky field of music reviewing, we pseudo-journalists are often faced with the sort of profound question: just how much has old, respected band "A" influenced the particular sounds of this new band "B"? Is influence boring and not worth mentioning? Well, in the case that it distracts discussion from any actual music, yes it is annoying and incredibly distracting. It would be lovely to read a review that never once mentioned the predecessor or originator of a certain sound. Yes, it gives the reader a context and a general expectation of what they’re buying into, but in general such comparisons are lazy, uninformed or just stolen from other reviews of the same band. Reading music reviews becomes a lesson in tracing other music reviews as well as tracing the sound of everyone from the last forty years of pop music. It gets old.
But on the other hand, the comparisons can seem quite valid. What do we listen to this stuff for? Are we looking for the chance to hear something new? Something that will change the way we look at something or hear something? Can a band that’s playing the same sound a different way really give us this? The answer as always is neither black nor white, but somewhere in between.
It’s a silly argument, mostly, but something I can’t help thinking about when I hear a band as singular as Frog Eyes.
Vancouver based Frog Eyes sounds like a maniacal, falsetto preacher foretelling end times backed by alternately gorgeous or claustrophobically melodic arrangements. Theatrically intoning about the apocalypse either using classic texts as metaphor or flat out shouting disillusion about his admittedly dubious cousins to the south (“Sing ‘birth right’…/ Fuck your bird!”), singer Carey Mercer may be insane. Until now, Mercer had always had one of Those Voices that would either make or break you upon first listen. Admittedly, last year’s Golden River (2003) broke me several times. I was the proverbial one child in six fleeing in a boat from Carey’s alarmingly falsetto delivery. I never got past the voice or the off beat arrangements that sounded as indebted to musical theatre or rock opera as they did to rock and roll.
As with any band as odd as Frog Eyes, they demand that you decipher the language they’ve created to be let into their world. Whereas on Golden River that seemed like too daunting a task, on The Folded Palm, Mercer’s voice seems more controlled than his previous explosions; entering Frog Eyes’ manic kingdom seems easier and also more worthwhile. He’ll still go high at times, of course, but his voice feels much more considered as an instrument to be stocked in Frog Eyes’ already sizable sonic arsenal, as opposed to a take it or leave it challenge from the get go. It works much better and allows the listener to approach Mercer’s fascinatingly dense, absurd and obscure lyrics that roundly critique modern culture (and again you get the feeling it isn’t his homeland of Canada he’s critiquing as much as one of Canada’s, uh… neighbors to the south). The lyrics, spat in a fevered pitch, feature a stream of conscious easiness that can be lulling or disarming or simply amazing.
“The Fence Feels its Post” starts things off with a muffled bass drum beat that’s capped with a cymbal. As soon as the cymbal is struck, Carey arrives singing: “Over the rise and over the posts lie in the grass away from the posts/ (So) wear white collars and confess you’re the host and nobody works for me!” The song stomps by in a blur, shouting Frog Eyes’ seemingly neo-Luddite manifesto against a world hastening its demise (“Machinations! Water’s Rising!”). It leads flawlessly into stunner “The Akhian Press,” which continues the themes of avoiding both the rising water and the treacherous culture in decline. Oddly, the song opens with lyrics almost identical to the Fiery Furnaces “Quay Cur” (opener from Blueberry Boat;, before going to places not even the Fieries dare to tread and culminating with a fantastically over the top chorus. “I Like Dot Dot Dot” opens with a fuzzy early nineties guitar and, again, feels perfectly placed. Frog Eyes’ stories, on the surface manic and cacophonous, seem focused and perfectly sequenced the more one listens.
The album continues its theatrically screeched condemnation of fast-paced culture and chides those who’ve abandoned “the tender and frail” or the “matron,” and a mood of loss permeates the whole affair. But, like many maniacal preachers, Mercer is at turns, furious, gitty, aroused or morose over the course of his sermons. The constant longing references to “matrimony” or a “matron” drive home the album’s opposition to the territorial jock male-ness that has been parading around the world under the guise of “Freedom.”
“The Oscillator Hums” clarifies any doubts as to whether Mercer was perhaps maybe referring to America when he spoke of “Bleak satellites” or of “Scorning the opinions of British children” or the “Papacy running out.” Featuring a refrain that screams, “The snipers by the falls will be delivering their calls: ‘Hey George, look what they found!’” it becomes obvious that the album is going for something directly political that has America and it’s macho football-loving king George in it’s sights.
“New Tappy is Heard and Beheld” continues the rather obvious critique of America with a gorgeous slow stomper featuring a descending guitar riff and hilarious refusal of America’s empire: “Fuck your bird! Fuck your bird! Won’t fuck! Won’t fuck!” Now, politics are all well and good in rock, but only when the music is good and the lyrics aren’t painfully pseudo-punk. Thankfully, Mercer never falls into this trap and the references only serve as the impending doom in his fantastically threatened screeches and rants. And the music is up to the tall task of matching Mercer’s tales, which it never seemed to be on previous Frog Eyes albums. Songs lilt threateningly or explode to match their orator’s heights and express his bewildered concern. Closer “Russian Berries but You’re Quiet Tonight” features sloppy guitar that works here as it does throughout the album over a gorgeous arrangement and lyrics that almost forgive but sternly remind that, “Even cancer needs a home.”
The Folded Palm is an album that wonderfully expresses what a lot of people are feeling about America’s Empire at this moment and it does it without drifting into tired metaphor or boring, static formulas for rebellion. Frog Eyes is a truly singular group with an inventive approach that has finally yielded an album worth writing home about. As for comparisons to bands of Pop Music past, there are a few you could make, but I’ll leave that up to you—-the listener.