This review was originally published in CVV Magazine, and can be found here.
The first winds of Carey’s Cold Spring blew without warning. Save for those who compulsively check Carey Mercer’s Twitter profile for updates on his many musical and literary projects few were aware that, after three years, a new Frog Eyes album was in the works much less completed. While Mercer fans have been spoiled by the recent proliferation of releases under his Blackout Beach moniker, Mercer’s return to Frog Eyes comes as a pleasant surprise… for the most part.
First, the bad news. Much like albums such as In Utero, and From A Basement on the Hill before it, Carey’s Cold Spring risks being coloured and even interpreted by significant biographical circumstances. The album’s very title unequivocally invokes its Singer, a surprising move for Mercer whose lyrics, even at their most personal, are cryptic— often shrouded by obscure mythological and literary references. Further, in the lengthy statement accompanying his album on the Frog Eyes’ Bandcamp page, Mercer reveals that the record’s final mix was completed just two days prior to his diagnosis with cancer of the throat: “Carey’s Cold Spring” indeed.
We only know about Mercer’s diagnosis, of course, because he chooses to disclose: according to Mercer, it was not a decision he took lightly. He states that he’s “been really hesitant about including this […] but [has] decided to include this information: illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is a big thing, a thing that impacts a life and forces changes on the way, for example, a songwriter releases her or his product.” Which brings us to our next unfortunate surprise.
Carey’s Cold Spring is Frog Eyes’ first independent release: the album will not be available on vinyl, and we will not see it in record stores. The fact that this record is an internet-exclusive affair, which is bound to limit the album’s potential distribution, is unfortunate. In Mercer’s own words, “a person who who doesn’t go on the internet, and gets his or her music solely based on the recommendation of a record store employee […] will likely miss out on this record.” It is too bad that Carey’s Cold Spring is destined to be relinquished to an inherently limiting digital format, as it is undoubtedly Frog Eyes’ finest moment.
Mercer makes a well reasoned argument for the digital medium as a worthy alternative to vinyl in purely aural terms. In an era abounding with self-ascribed “audiophiles” and poseurs alike singing vinyl’s praises, Mercer offers an interesting counterpoint: “[It’s] true that vinyl sounds really good, when played on a good record player, with a new needle, into a good receiver, and out of excellent speakers. [But] mostly, I suspect that the vinyl we listen to gets compromised by our systems. We all are music-lovers, but few of us have the dough or time to assemble and maintain a top-spec system, the kind of system that people are talking about when they say ‘vinyl is superior.’” Mercer’s caveat to vinyl-worship couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
Ultimately, Mercer’s decision to release the album independently is due to his reluctance to guarantee a tour to support the record. Current musician/record label relationships dictate that if an artist releases an album with a label, said artist is beholden to his/her label. Given these circumstances, Mercer couldn’t possibly release the record on a label because, “then I am beholden to them. I am still sick. I can’t be beholden to anyone but that ‘spirit force’ within me that demands a constant production of music. I’ve got to get the music out quicker, and being the owner of my music allows me to do this. Songs turn toxic within you if you leave them in there too long.” Carey’s Cold Spring was released just in time: as opposed to previous Frog Eyes recordings, there’s not the slightest trace of toxicity on any of this album’s nine tracks.
Carey’s Cold Spring is a radical departure for Frog Eyes. Mercer is the only band member to return from 2010’s Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph. Further, Carey’s Cold Spring is the first Frog Eyes recording not to feature Melanie Campbell’s idiosyncratic percussion-work. The album’s vastly different flavour proves that Campbell’s role in Frog Eyes has been every bit as foundational to the band’s “sound” as Mercer’s gigantic yawp: from her dinger-laden contributions to The Folded Palm to her subtle mastery of symbols on tracks such as “Styled By Dr. Roberts” from Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, Campbell’s absence on Carey’s Cold Spring is disarming– haunting, even.
Luckily, Mercer recruited Matt Skillings in Campbell’s stead. Skillings, whose contributions to Chet and The Lily Fawn Band exemplify his virtuosic take on percussion, an approach which favours rhythmic texture over hard hitting. Skillings makes his presence felt immediately with a series of drum rolls on album opener, “The Road is Long”. Along with Shyla Seller, Mercer, and former Wolf Parade bassist Dante DeCaro, Skillings comprises an updated incarnation of Frog Eyes which results in a much different and more immediately palatable record than we are used to hearing from Frog Eyes. Some of these songs, most notably “Nonnie’s got a taste for the Bright Red Air Jordans” and “Claxxon’s Lament”, might even stand a chance on mainstream radio in spite of their un-radio-friendly titles.
Frog Eyes’ newfound palatable-ness owes much to Mercer’s refined approach to singing. While Mercer’s vocals have historically been been described as eccentric and have been compared to “a dying boar in a tar pit”, Mercer’s beast moan baritones are noticeably mostly absent from most of Carey’s Cold Spring. When the beast does surface on songs such as “Nonnie’s got a taste for the Bright Red Air Jordan’s”, he is buried deep in the mix: Mercer’s roar is transformed into a whisper. His refined approach to vocal delivery, an approach hinted at on Blackout Beach’s Fuck Death, bears testament to Mercer’s increasing vocal restraint– Mercer’s voice on Carey’s Cold Spring is strangely beautiful, even operatic at times.
A new and understated approach to vocals finally fully showcases Mercer’s lyrical savvy: it’s always been there, of course, but listeners are now less dependent on the liner notes to decode the lyrical litanies he spits. Mercer’s more consistent enunciation makes for a more successful fusion of what he says and how he says it. Carey’s Cold Spring, which focusses on mortality (amongst many other things), is often sung in a distinctively elegiac tone: Mercer sounds like an old man, looking back to “nights so long”— last nights spent at the bedside of one’s dying father.
Mercer is somewhat dismissive of the cohesiveness of Carey’s Cold Spring, stating that it is “not a conceptual work; [there is] no over-arching theme or conceptual thread that runs through [it]”. The past three years have been full of inspiration for Mercer, including “riots, occupy, revolutions, storms, floods, melodramatic gestures, leftist factions, mass marches in the streets, the sheer and shocking crookedness of our political and economic system, fear of the right, fear of torture, of murder, of future firing squads, of the consequences of idealism, of the consequences of having no ideals or ideas”. Indeed, an entire host of current events informs this album, a record that references “red Air Jordan’s” and “Major Tom” in the same raspy breath: this, a musical tapestry containing many threads, is a musical answer to Roberto Bolano’s sprawling final opus, 2666: avenues for potential critique are seemingly limitless.
Given this review’s attention to how format informs content, I will choose only one of Carey’s Cold Spring’s many thematic threads to interrogate for this review. Furthermore, I will limit this critical interrogation to only two of the album’s songs, though I encourage you all to give the entirety of Carey’s Cold Spring not one, but many listens: this record reveals itself slowly, rewarding its listener many epiphanies with each listen. For this review, I will closely read “Nonnie’s got a taste for the Bright Red Air Jordans” and “Claxxon’s Lament”, as these songs, with their respective tone and lyricism, dwell on the theme of loss which is so pervasively and delicately handled on this recording.
Nonnie first. What a strange name for a song, especially for a band so long-considered to be on the fringes of cultural reference. A song about shoes? Not likely. Instead, we discover that this Jordan breathes a different air; that this man is in fact an entire town— “Wild-man comes from the caves with air-salt from Jordan”. With a re-defined meaning of “Jordan”, from sports iconoclast to ancient town, we experience a kick to the eye, a complete re-imagining of a word which has been appropriated and re-appropriated throughout history. Mercer plays magician here, but, more importantly, he manages to follow through, wringing nouminous feelings from common-place goods.
The tone of the song is so elegiac, so gloriously sad! “Nonnie’s got a taste for the Bright Red Air Jordans” evokes a feeling of a hurt so deep it manages to recall singers such as Bill Faye who straddle the past and the present tense, whose influence has stood the test of time’s rapidly ticking clock, but who have somehow managed to slip into obscurity. Shyla Seller’s organ is especially noticeable here, grinding notes so slow and so cold they must come from under six feet deep. These notes provide a staid foundation for our collective deep, yet disturbing craving for “a night so slow”, imagined in this song.
Which brings us to the album’s centerpiece, “Claxxon’s Lament”. This song also speaks of long nights, here re-imagined as “nights too slow”. “Claxxon’s Lament”, is a dirge most familiar to Mercer fans. The song has been recorded by Carolyn Mark, Wolf Parade, and Mercer himself on a live Blackout Beach recording he chose to release on Bandcamp a while back. It’s an old song, but with Carey’s Cold Spring, it becomes new again.
At least part of the song’s ‘newness’ can be attributed to the biographical context Mercer ascribes to it with his accompanying essay. Here, we meet Mercer at the bedside of his dying father. In the sterile confines of a quiet hospice, Claxoxon alone manages to break through: as Mercer explains:
I remembered “Claxxon’s Lament”, which I think is a good enough song to play while your dad passes out of life. So I sat by him and sang it; I sang it really well, of course, because I had the sense that it was the last song he would hear, not that there was any evidence he could actually hear, but still, it was the last song that went into his ears. I also sang it loud, because even though a hospice is supposed to be quiet, I wanted it to mean something, and sometimes volume creates its own meaning.
Song in the face of death! Light in the face of darkness! These are themes which pervade Carey’s Cold Spring: a season oft’ mistaken for Winter’s preface brings us to Summer’s soft feet– a full flowering of long dormant potential. Carey’s Cold Spring is indeed disorienting, it runs the risk of unsettling Frog Eyes fans who have traditionally exalted in the unequivocal darkness of despair, the band’s former muse. But Frog Eyes’ new invites more conventional listeners, people for whom beautiful and tasty textures trump overwhelming despair to listen in. Maybe, with Carey’s Cold Spring, Winter and Summer will at long last, finally collide.