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Mad Dogs and British Columbians: The Fall and Frog Eyes

Frog Eyes' Cary Mercer and the Fall's Mark E. Smith may be the last of the great convulsive ministers of rock 'n' roll beauty.

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: May, 2010
Do I see a copy of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell poking out of his pocket as he lashes us to the mast?
by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: May, 2010
Do I see a copy of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell poking out of his pocket as he lashes us to the mast?

The Fall
Your Future, Our Clutter


If we are to believe Andre Breton when he claimed "Beauty will be convulsive or not at all" then there is no more beautiful a rock star than the Fall's Mark E. Smith. Smith is the sabre-toothed anti-Jagger, maintaining decade after decade of sheer restless rawk integrity by never letting his legacy rest, sacking the band like temp workers, shedding styles like ratty sweaters, marrying the keyboard player, wrecking hotel rooms, all while barking like a mad dog.

It is a cliche to declare Smith to be in fine form on each new album, as he is on on their new album Your Future, Our Clutter, as it is to say his new band is working in simpatico with his singular monstrosity, which in this case, they are. But that's OK; the Fall's angled rockabilly and punk rock tinny continuum are the kinds of cliches about which one is prompted to evoke the ultimate cliche: it's a cliche because it's true.

What I think Smith is after is that convulsive beauty, the fish of truth wriggling on the line, and the catch is fresh on Your Future, Our Clutter. The standout track "Bury Pts. 1 + 3" opens with the muddy elemental of a song, sounding like it's being played just as you are about to black out, and then traincars into the finished version of the same tune with a whining microwave burn of an organ and Moog crickets standing in for the tape hiss. It is evolution rock, ooze to walking fish kind of stuff.

The Fall has always been counted on for locking onto a riff and sticking with it in a song, but that is something that has started to change over the years. "Cowboy George" tears out the gate like an enraged bull with our drunken growling clown going on about "unseen facts, unseen knowledge" but descends into a deconstruction of the same riff, befouled with echo and loneliness, overcome with a cicada swarm of effects, leaving Smith to disintegrate in his irradiated brain.

There are groovy numbers like "Hot Cake," punk raveup reprises like "YFOC/Slippy Floor," electro-sleeze nightmares like "Chino" and even a veritable ballad in "Weather Report 2." It is as stylistically varied an album as the Fall has produced in a decade, showing the greatest band in the world taking the final dangerous step; sounding startlingly like an actual band.

Frog Eyes
Paul's Tomb: A Triumph

(Dead Oceans)

There has never been a doubt in my mind that Frog Eyes were a band despite their rotating personnel and common relegation as a side project to more pop-friendly Victoria, BC bands about whom I cannot muster excitement. Carry Mercer and crew board my mind like pirates do a yacht on a pleasure cruise, terrifying and beguiling. Is that a real eye-patch, a real sword at his side? Do I see a copy of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell poking out of his pocket as he lashes us to the  mast?

Mercer's erudite bellowing is like Smith's complicated growls, a mask with lenses so the wearer can see farther and more clearly while obscuring the real them. The Fall is generally on a bullet train to oblivion, while Frog Eyes defiantly pilots their leaky boat to edge of the map where there is little more than dragons and the end of the world.

Mercer's locust visions seem carefully controlled on Paul's Tomb: A Triumph but no less swashbuckling. The epic opening track "A Flower in a  Glove" is a love note delivered from a Revelations-spewing street preacher; the precise lines may be lost in the rabid patois, but his love bleeds through like a gunshot wound through a new shirt.

Mad King Lear makes two notable appearances in this tale, first in the  despondent instrumental beauty of "Lear, in the Park" and then the manic strut of "Lear in Love." Both may reference the play but Mercer's flailing is too wild to allow close inspection. Instead, Shakespeare is higher standard of literature to which this art aspires, and Lear is the barrel ride down the falls of ones cognitive break. In Frog Eyes as in life, you have to soar to the clouds to get up enough speed for a satisfying crash.

The title track closes this ragged cathartic parade, the protagonist less triumphant than shocked he survived the ordeal that hot us there. He wants to "break on through" but through what? The membrane between life and death? Sanity and madness? Order and discord? The wall of one's own tomb? Maybe it's the line between a bloodied scrawl on the page, a scream on tape and the raw reality of existence. Whatever it is, on either of these records, it is melodramatic stuff, the kind that a steadied soul says "alright already" to, too much excitement, but to the rest of us, it feels like the match that might just hit our fuse and let us beautifully, convulsively explode.

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Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com


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