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Even by more old-fashioned standards, the debut album from Mount Pleasant avant-poppers Frau Eva had a prolonged gestation period. Three years have passed since the group released its Rip Out the Threads EP, and even more than that since the group first tested out its deconstructed folk ditties on D.C. stages. In an age of practice-session demos hastily uploaded to Bandcamp pages—not to mention bands that establish a solid Web presence before they’ve built a solid setlist—three years feels like several lifetimes.
Still, it’s not that the original three members (who added a fourth, Billy Noom, between then and now) have been slacking. Vanessa Degrassi and Ben Usie have been busy playing in local folk-rock band Pree, which released an impressive and eclectic full-length last year. And—if we’re to believe a recent video interview he did with the Huffington Post—David Klinger spent six months of that time locked in his basement (“You start to miss things like the outside world, and the sun”) designing Frau Eva’s new website. Hopefully he’s exaggerating the extent of his lockdown, but either way, the fanciful, sunlit design he came up with is a good visual metaphor for the band’s first album, Underneath Eyelids. It’s a record that feels like it was assembled skillfully and carefully, but exudes plenty of handmade charm.
Like Pree and D.C. peers Ugly Purple Sweater, Frau Eva’s fractured pop sensibility recalls the delicate and diffuse atmosphere of Yellow House-era Grizzly Bear, their melodies floating like dust motes through creaky, vacant soundscapes. “It feels just like Christmas day, when everyone’s away,” Klinger murmurs on “Howling” while a muted piano echoes, as though its notes are drifting through an empty house.
Underneath Eyelids’ most memorable lyric indulges in a bit of music-nerd philosophizing (“Would you recognize Morrissey smiling/With the sun crawling up and hanging from his shoulder?”). Elsewhere, Degrassi does some Moz-worthy brooding of her own on “Blue Beetle” (“What have you done to me?…/You’ve lead me to believe”), which pivots midway through from a haunting ballad to a jazzy, off-kilter lurch. There are fleeting instances when Eyelids becomes a tad too precious—most of which involving the common indie-rock misdemeanor of glockenspiel overuse—but the worst offender is an interlude slipped between more haunting and evocative songs. In the way it stitches together fragments of folk, chamber pop, and jazz, Frau Eva’s music is almost always contorting, shifting, and morphing into something unexpected and delightful.
With all the detail and eccentricity of an eerie but well-stocked antique store, Underneath Eyelids warrants some close attention. It’s somehow fitting that Frau Eva’s debut took so long to arrive, since the band makes the kind of complex and textured pop that rewards the patient listener. Maybe they were just heeding the words of that guy who never smiles: “These things take time.”