It’s about seven songs into the new Frog Eyes “comeback” LP – its first since 2018’s curtain-call Violet Psalms, a three-year hiatus, and frontman Carey Mercer’s wondrous one-off as Soft Plastics – that the band gets down to the matter at hand: why break up the break up? The hints are dropped in the song “Scottish Wine,” a pretty good, pretty straight-forward little number with an excellent bridge or two of warped electric guitars. Mercer, ever the storyteller, confronts the group’s reappearance after a self-declared end of sorts. “These are sad, sad, sad songs/ Why would I write such sad, sad songs?” he croons. “I am compelled to write such sad, sad songs.” Or maybe, if we’re digging, there’s the more direct epigraph at the beginning of the 10-track LP’s last song: “Everything dies/ and everything glows.” It’s tough to say. Frog Eyes – and Mercer, in particular – always have erred on the side of the mystical and arcane. And, God bless them, their first of what we hope will be many reunion LPs is no retreat from the weird and wonderful pathway they tread. There’s the nut graf.
The Bees, the Vancouver collective’s latest offering, is a vibrant, highly textured and even nuanced LP, full of the kind of life and wonder that many bands can no longer summon this far into their tenure. Yes, yes, there are some staples. Anyone who follows Frog Eyes will cop a smile at the LP’s familiar first single, “When You Turn on The Light,” an excellent piece that seems to feature some of the band’s trademark little signatures and oxymorons. But there’s rich, unexpected helpings here, too, namely the record’s title track. The song “The Bees,” landing in the number two spot, starts off as a pensive kind of murder ballad, the wrapped-around digital delay of the guitar threatening to unravel the whole thing. But, after a direct assault from Mercer’s guitar about two-thirds of the way through, the piece is reborn as a psych-rock instrumental, the digital delay swirling in every direction, and the only anchor falling to drummer Melanie Campbell’s spartan beat. It’s enthralling and surprising stuff from a band with this much of a time-worn discography behind them.
The excellent “Rainbow Stew” and “He’s A Lonely Song,” a pop-rock nugget, are fleshed out by Mercer’s warbly electric guitar and his quirky vocal timbre. (The latter piece has a great moment where Mercer, as a child, is pondering the death of God and his father feeds him an unforgettable line I’ll let you hear for yourself.) The bouncy “I Was An Oligarch” is a fun blast of Dead Milkmen punk energy. “Here Is A Place to Stop,” with its obvious, read-it-plain title, is musically anything but obvious, and the synths, in particular, lead a narrative that, in true Mercer fashion, twists with the subconscious through some fascinating terrain. There are a lot of really great songs here.
So, what can we come to expect from this new iteration of Frog Eyes, which essentially has revolved around the marriage (literal and figurative) of Mercer and Campbell? Instead of burying the ledes and building up from there, a tactic that worked quite well on recent tracks like the epic “I Ain’t Around Much,” from Pickpocket’s Locket, the group relies heavily on live recording here and that leads to an excitement and a kind of rawness that could point in any number of directions. There’s a lot of possibilities when the record stops spinning about what could come next – and we don’t have to tell you bands 20 years into their runs don’t often come off as so sonically daring. The Bees, in short, is a rebirth LP worthy of Mercer and Campbell’s better work to date. There’s plenty for the critics to pick at but, when you’re done drawing up the measurements, it’s a goddamn pleasure to spin. And it will leave you spinning. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, May 4, 2022