Vancouver indie rockers Frog Eyes called it quits after 2018’s Violet Psalms and spent a brief run under the name Soft Plastics. Chalk it up as a short fever dream for a band that always sounded like it spun those like cotton candy. Unlike associated Canadian songwriters like Destroyer’s Dan Bejar or Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, lead vocalist/guitarist Carey Mercer seems to be just fine with his group’s off-center stature in the music industry. He’s always just a few steps shy of breakout success, but rarely fails to deliver the good stuff. The closest Frog Eyes ever got was 2007’s Tears of the Valedictorian, an epic album released during that short window of time when indie rock was at its most deliriously arcane, a place Frog Eyes knows very well. The project always had plenty of punk veracity, but tempered it by dog-earring art-rock songbooks.
As it was years ago, Mercer’s voice is always the centerpiece of any good Frog Eyes track. It growls, coos, and curls around each manic lyric like a coiled rattlesnake. His inimitable performance on The Bees is even more impressive after surviving a 2013 throat cancer diagnosis. Varying in length, tone, and setting, these 10 tracks sound like a new era for both his singing and his backing trio that pushed him along. The propulsive “Rainbow Stew” opens the record on a high note as the band continues to work toward the crest of the wave before landing on the title track. Lead single “When You Turn on the Light” is a domestic, apartment-living inspired song that finds a 21-year-old Mercer walking into his bedroom in the late afternoon, still a bit high off fresco painting fumes from the night before, and finding the building’s manager staring at the “hellish umber landscape that glittered street light reflections from the enamel paint.”
Mercer is usually writing musical short stories like “Light” and “Here Is a Place to Stop,” which are often a heady mixture of fever dream and weekend drinking spree. Some of the best Frog Eyes albums (The Golden River and The Bloody Hand) manage this dichotomy well, and The Bees gets pretty damn close. Drummer Melanie Campbell and keys player Shyla Seller set the mood on “I Was an Oligarch,” “A Rhyme for the Star,” and “He’s a Lonely Song” as Mercer sloshes the mise en scene back and forth in his mouth like a rich tannic wine.
“Lonely Song” in particular is one of Frog Eyes’ best no-frills rock tracks in almost a decade. Mercer recounts a story of his dad sitting at the edge of his bed reassuring him that God is not dead, but also filling his brain with images of American frontiersmen slaughtering buffalo and piling their corpses up under a sick, pallid sun. This is the thrawn natural world of Frog Eyes, where fathers speak of a species’ sunset and their sons fight against the dying of that light. Enjoy the ride while it lasts—as Mercer sings on The Bees’ final track, “everything dies and everything glows.”