Casey Mercer and Frog Eyes return with Tears of the Valedictorian, their first full-length original release since 2004, and it is a unique record that suffers from unique problems. Hailing from the unlikely climes of Victoria, British Columbia’s sleepy provincial capital, Mercer and Eyes forged their chaotic, pressing sound on a trio of records, 2002-04 (The Bloody Hand, The Golden River, and The Folded Palm).
This was followed by some meandering, including a record of acoustic versions of their work (2004’s Ego Scriptor), and Mercer joining the Canadian supergroup Swan Lake for last year’s Beast Moans (QRO Review). Tears of the Valedictorian represents a return to the general jumbled arrangement of earlier works (and 2006’s The Future Is Inter-Disciplinary or Not At All EP), especially Golden River and Folded Palm, perhaps a little more maniac, maybe a little less melodic, but certainly with unfortunately less variety.
The main strength, and the main problem, with Tears of the Valedictorian – and maybe for Frog Eyes as a whole – is their particular, reoccurring storyline. Their scrambled beats, lain beneath a jumpy, undistorted guitars and vocals are remarkable and memorable. Unfortunately, Frog Eyes plays pretty much the same game throughout Tears, with each piece feeling more like a chapter in the same book than a distinct creation of its own. There is a bit of alteration, with opener “Idle Songs” and later “The Policy Merchant, The Silver Bay” somewhat brighter, and “Caravan Breaks, They Prey On the Weak and the Old” darker, but “Caravan” is still really just a sort of dark sequel to the preceding “Idle”.
Tears is strongest when it gets a bit wider in scope and wisdom. This begins with “Reform the Countryside”, but gets widest with “Evil Energy, The Ill Twin Of…”. Those, unfortunately, sacrifice some harmony for width, but that is not the case with the record’s single, “Bushels”. The penultimate track on the record, “Bushels” is kind of the best of what is done throughout the album; big, yet also intimate. At over nine minutes, it is in many ways all one needs to know of the album, especially as it is preceded and succeeded by sub-two minute prologue and epilogue, “…Eagle Energy” and “My Boats They Go”.
Frog Eyes have hit upon an interesting and compelling style, but the problem is that it seems to be all they’ve hit upon. Prior records were either very similar, or the same thing under different guises (like the atmospheric tones of The Future Is Inter-Disciplinary). Even Beast Moans retained some of that signature bedlam, albeit interjected amid a host of musical strains. It’s something that is quite winning upon first, and even second, listen, but put on repeat, it can be wearing. Even the esoteric track titles, from the extended “Caravan Breakers, They Prey On the Weak and the Old” to the super-quoted ““Stockades””, seem like forced attempts to differentiate tracks that aren’t all that different.
Frog Eyes is not your run-of-the-mill indie band. In fact, they’re not even your run-of-the-mill anarchic indie band, with Casey Mercer thankfully forgoing the nasal vocals of singers in similar bands, like Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth. However, Frog Eyes’ anarchy seems to be the same throughout the record, with the same hodgepodge tempo and tone occurring in every song. This all makes Tears of the Valedictorian the kind of record that may be a bit difficult upon first listen, yet very rewarding upon second, but with diminishing returns as time goes on.