Have you ever been hit really hard in the head with a sledgehammer and then thrown into the ocean during a hurricane? Well, that’s what Carey Mercer’s voice sounds like. It’s a great big billowing thing, all thick warbles and braying rasps. It’s certainly a difficult sound to get out of one’s head once it’s crammed its way in there just once. In the past, under his chosen moniker, Frog Eyes (and, in typical Canadian indie rock fashion, with a few side projects), Mercer has played off the utter uniqueness of his voice and eschewed traditional pop song structure and arrangement tropes, creating nebulous and meandering pieces of music as unorthodox as his singing.

Mercer’s ninth album with Frog Eyes, Pickpocket’s Locket, is a little different, however. That may be partially out of necessity—Mercer was diagnosed with (and successfully treated for) throat cancer in 2013, so his full bellow may not be entirely intact. But the album’s divergence from his past work is also self-imposed. Prior to its conception, Mercer’s father passed away and left him a D-18 Martin acoustic guitar—the industry standard model for decades. Armed with this tool, Mercer wrote the 10 songs that became Pickpocket’s Locket. I know, I know, writing songs on acoustic guitar—how original! But in this instance, it did constitute a sort of unexpected reinvention.

Reined in by the inherent restrictions of the guy-on-a-couch-with-a-cigar-box style of songwriting, Mercer produced some of the most structurally grounded and intimate compositions of his career. Not that Pickpocket’s Locket sounds like an early Bob Dylan album or anything—in fact, there’s very little audible acoustic guitar on the album at all. Instead, Mercer (never one to succumb to cliché, to say the least) took the skeletons of songs that could have easily been turned into standard issue folk rock in most other hands and transformed them into works of pop/rock/whatever confections of not-quite-definable influence and execution.

Timbre-wise, Pickpocket’s Locket is indeed incredibly unique. Sighing, countryish pedal steel intermingles with classical strings, rocking distorted guitar and jazzy sax on the very same songs, and it inexplicably all fits together. It’s a credit to the versatility of Mercer’s songs themselves that none of these genre signifiers allow the proceedings to be pigeonholed, other than a couple of obvious nods to classic rock in “Rip Down the Fences that Fence the Garden” (a Neil Young & Crazy Horse-style slow burner) and “Rejoinders in a Storm” (which, as might be surmised from the title, features a silky electric piano and verse melody that blatantly recalls the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”).

For Mercer’s part, although his lyrics remain a more or less impenetrable mix of surrealist imagery and elliptical soul baring, he mostly scales his usual wailing bombast way back in favor of crafty melodicism, resulting in songs like “Joe with the Jam,” which comes about as close as Mercer has ever gotten to something that could be played on the radio, landing somewhere between symphonic pop and Appalachian mountain music, if that doesn’t sound too absurdly implausible (which it probably does). And while he does cut loose here and there, especially at the end of the record on “I Ain’t Around Much” and the aforementioned “Rip Down the Fences…,” the delivery is downright subdued on “The Beat Is Down” and “Death’s Ship,” allowing their genial, comforting vocal hooks to shine through. But the album’s real MVP may very well former Frog Eyes member Spencer Krug, also Mercer’s bandmate in side project Swan Lake. The Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown frontman arranged all the strings on Pickpocket’s Locket, and in so doing elevated Mercer’s compositions considerably, even endowing two of the album’s best songs, “Joe with the Jam” and “The Demon Runner,” with their primary (and very memorable) melodic hooks. And they don’t sound anything like getting hit with a sledgehammer in a hurricane.

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