You’ve got to hand it to Canadien Carey Mercer, the principal performer-songwriter behind the baroque pop outfit Frog Eyes, whose Pickpocket’s Locket LP is licking ears these days around these parts: he is nothing is not diverse. Owner of a truly elastic set of vocal chords he uses to over-enunciate phrases to the point of the dramatique, Mercer also has knack for almost consciously anti-band multi-track recording. This was evidenced on previous recordings, where he buried the listener in layers of sound.
As the project Blackout Beach (find it), where he obsessed over the lost love of the mystical “Donna” in majestic song cycles, Mercer was more than a half-step removed and isolated, sometimes to the point of iciness. The electric guitars were occasionally alien-estranged and stripped bare. It is with a state of shock, then, that I report that Pickpocket’s Locket is a kind of antithesis to Blackout Beach’s Skin of Evil LP – a warm, inviting record filled with plaintive strings, organ, pedal steel and vibraphone and, more importantly, one that is impossible to imagine had Mercer not opened the porch door to a cast of outside collaborators.
The action begins right from scratch with “Two Girls (One For Heaven and the Other One For Rome),” which quickly supplants a scratchy acoustic track with walking bass, toe-tapping snare, Paul Rigby’s pedal steel, John Paton’s saxophone and an addictively hooky chorus (you just don’t want it to end) where Mercer croons “doo-doodoo-doo-doo-no-whoa-whoa!” It’s just that old rock n’roll swing that’s frighteningly authentic. The gems roll out from there, with Mercer conjuring up all sorts of spirits of the dramatic with his trebly voice (“Joe with the Jam”), Jesse Zubot’s flighty, illustrious string arrangements (“Death’s Ship”) or, after a sparse introduction, pounding drums paired against twinkling pianos (“In A Hut”).
“Crystal Blip,” like “Two Girls,” would do early rock icons proud, in a very mutated sense of the phrase. Very little guitar and the piece is largely vocal-driven over casual drums that elicit Fats Domino more than they do most of the indie rock Mercer’s circles would call to mind. “Because you run, run, run, run, run,” he laments, “because you run, run, run,” and, though his vocal delivery is unique, you almost forget you’re listening to an indie rock record in the Condition of British Columbia 2015.
The record “ends” with “I Ain’t Around Much,” in which Mercer clearly exorcises some demons about his late father, whose spirit and spectre lingers over some of the record. (His father’s Martin guitar, the sole inheritance, was used in the writing and recording of the LP.) Let’s just say Mercer sings with a lot of pain and a lot of passion on the track and doesn’t sound remotely close to this anywhere else on the disc (“My voice is here,” he wails at one point, “you may return.”) It’s a chilling if not entirely fitting second-to-last song for the disc. (The last song is sort of overshadowed.) And it leaves you hungry for more.